I caught a little flak last week from a reader who complained that by including the SoundTaxi music-format converter in a round-up of useful downloads I wrote for the newspaper, I was was advocating the abuse of copyright (to recap: the music you purchase from iTunes comes encoded as m4p files, which can only be played on your computer or on iPod digital music players; SoundTaxi creates MP3 copies of those files that can be played on generic digital music players).
My response -- Darknet, yada yada yada, peer-to-peer networks vs. broadcast models, and what about Apple's evil monopolistic business practices? -- got nowhere with the guy. His response: "A copyright is a copyright. Until the courts say otherwise. To violate that copyright for personal satisfaction doesn't make it right." Sigh.
Sadly, this is the kind of dumb copyright "debate" that we're having around the country right now, and those of us on the side of the angels are losing.
Not on the merits of our new thinking about intellectual property, perhaps, but on lobbying, on money, on attention. At the very least, we need to pay whatever attention we can right now to several developments with precedent-setting potential.
- Twenty days ago, the U.S. Copyright Office quietly gave the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) a great big dirty present. It enacted regulations that require Internet radio operations to pay royalties to record companies on a prohibitive fee schedule that was -- you guessed it -- written by the RIAA. To give you some sense of the scale, an Internet radio station with an average listenership of 1,000 users would owe $134,000 in royalties for 2007, plus $98,000 in back-fees for 2006. Those rates have only one goal: Shutting down these small operators.
- The Viacom/YouTube lawsuit. No doubt Viacom has couched its case against YouTube in apocalyptic terms (I'm guilty of the same crime on occasion). But what most observers seem unwilling to acknowledge is that, despite the rhetoric, the Viacom suit is probably little more than a formal step in an ongoing negotiation about the value of this "pirated" content. Google/YouTube has previously offered to pay Viacom for its content, an offer Viacom rejected. One suspects that, with a pricing plan acceptable to Viacom in place, this suit might just go away. But there's one other option. Perhaps the MPAA will push for a trial, driving for a precedent-setting win that could chill its new-media competitors.
To put this in a personal context, my livelihood is based on the value of intellectual content. I'm a writer and new-media content creator. Of course I want to be paid for that work.
But my interests are not the interests of the record and movie industries. And the simple fact is that these industries are attempting to extend copyright law based on 20th century media technologies to cover 21st century media developments. These new media forms have the net effect of threatening the monopolizing power of big media conglomerates.
Which is why the copyright debate isn't competition in a free market, the way libertarians like to imagine it. This is competition in the real world, the way bacteria colonies do it. Bacteria don't just survive by out-competing rivals for resources, they survive by poisoning potential rivals before they can become threats (as Pam says, "It's all about the microbe"). In other words, this is competition by anti-competitive means, masquerading as a crusade for intellectual property rights, camouflaged as a principled stand on behalf of artists and content creators.
We could rewrite copyright laws in ways that acknowledge both the value of intellectual property and the capabilities of new and emerging technologies. In doing so we could unleash a wave of "Long Tail" creativity that would be good for the U.S. economy, our culture and people in general.
The big problem? The losers in such a system likely would be the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America. These people are spending millions of dollars every year to make sure that does not happen.
We're right. But they're funded.