Another essay for my Engl1B class at SJSU. The topic for this one is current events related to my SE. Since it’s an english class and most SE current events are boring, this essay loosely addresses DRM (somewhat more interesting) instead. Same audience disclaimer.
The following opinions may not be indicative of my (or anyone’s) personal views on the topic.
Stealing isn’t what it used to be. As words often do, “stealing” is taking on a new meaning. “Stealing” used to mean the act of taking another person’s property without legal permission; by stealing what is yours, I deprive you of your possession of it. The concept of material deprivation was invented long before the digital age. In a world where ideas are free, “stealing” is no longer what it was. Record Labels are businesses whose business model is based on the control and restriction of music, of ideas, a business model that is threatened by the new paradigm of free information. The Record Labels try to maintain control with copyright and try to restrict ideas with Digital Rights Management; they throw obstacles between musicians and audiences like boulders into a river. And when the music eventually gets to the ears of their customers, despite their best efforts, they call this “stealing.”
Art is important. It is important to us as creative beings because it connects us on an emotional, personal level. Music as an art form communicates emotions and rhythm from the artist to the audience. Every song you hear tells you something about the singer and about yourself. Art and creativity are so important that they have protections in the US Constitution; The Copyright Clause states that art should be promoted by “securing for limited Times to Authors [...] exclusive Rights” to their works. The Founding Fathers’ thoughts were that by gaining and maintaining personal benefit from the act of creating art, citizens would be compelled to further create more useful art. Today and in recent history, that benefit has been notoriety and cold hard cash. People appreciate art so much that they’ll pay for it.
When copyright was invented, enjoying rights as an author meant that you control the release of your work to the world. If you wrote a book, you could publish it and people would pay you for copies. Similarly, if you wrote a song, you could record it and people might give you money for a copy. Copyright was originally envisioned and enforced so that you controlled distribution and subsequently profited by it. However, Monetizing distribution created an industry. The industry it created was not one of creativity, but rather of control. By controlling the distribution of art, you profit; the act of creation wasn’t essential aside from fighting the law of diminishing returns. This is what the Recording Industry Association of America represents: a cartel of music distributors (Record Labels) interested in control rather than creation. It also follows that the companies that the RIAA represents have lobbied successfully to get US laws enacted that preserve and strengthen copyright.
“Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday… ” You probably know the rest of the song. And, yes, it’s true that this song is copyrighted and pays royalties to its owners. The “Happy Birthday” song is owned by a subsidiary of Warner Music. The songwriter and his kin are long since dead and have no plans of writing any more clever or charming songs for you to sing at your next family event. Yet, people are required by law to pay royalties to the copyright holders to use this song, about two million dollars annually. Being a music distributor sure is profitable. Maintaining copyright has a real monetary incentive for these distribution companies; after all, the songwriter might be dead, but the corporation is alive and, in the US, legally has many of the same rights as a person. Since distribution became profitable, copyright has increased perversely from its original spirit and intent. Most recently, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 extended the length of copyright to the life of the author plus 70 years or 120 years for corporate authorship, a far cry from the original 14 years granted in 1790.
There is a new threat to distribution as a business model: free distribution. Because of computer network technology, information can be copied and transmitted freely between consenting parties. If you ask the RIAA, this is called “stealing.” Back when this was a looming threat, very shrewd people employed at media distribution companies had the foresight to lobby the US government to protect distribution as a business model. They perverted copyright and its continued defense into reasons for restricting the free exchange of information. Along with the many copyright extension acts passed, media lobbies have successfully cultivated the passage of The No Electronic Theft Act of 1997 that enables federal, criminal penalties for peer to peer file sharing and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) signed in 1998 that outlaws circumvention of DRM. Weapons designed to maintain control.
DRM means you don’t own the content you bought. However, according to Alexander Wolfe, every major DRM software has been cracked. Does this mean that if you make it illegal to own content, only criminals will own content? With the <a href=”http://www.copyright.gov/docs/regstat121201.html”>DMCA</a>, if you want to use the music you “bought” (i.e. licensed) the way you want to, you must commit a federal felony. But that’s not scaring enough people. The media distributors have strategically made it illegal to circumvent their business model. They ensure that their strategy is acknowledged by the public by calling out dissenters as “pirates” and “thieves.” They are entrenching their legal, moral high ground by serving and suing grandmothers, immigrants, 7 year-old girls, and dead people into financial oblivion.
A jury of 12 recently flew the RIAA war banner against Jammie Thomas; they fined her $222,000 for “making available” 24 digital songs on her home computer. The irony here is that if Ms. Thomas had gone the local bankrupt record store, physically stolen 24 songs on two over-priced $16 CDs she would be facing a $3000 fine and the court would require a higher burden of proof to convict her. After all, the Capitol v. Thomas suit never even acknowledged any copyright infringement took place; The RIAA is inventing a new “crime”: potential copyright infringement. Remember, RIAA lawsuits are civil cases. There’s no “beyond a reasonable doubt” protecting the defendant; there’s no habeas corpus; there’s no double jeopardy. This is unbridled litigious harassment. However, Ms. Thomas’ case isn’t about the music, the artists, or the audience. It’s about hubris and fear. The record labels are losing a battle of attrition because people want to hear music and the labels are in the way.
It’s called “self-healing.” Information flows from source to sink, automatically routing around artificial limitations. Musicians want people to hear their music. Record labels want to intervene. For our current generation, “music piracy” is wrong. Record labels are beating and slashing at the new, free distribution channels with flagrant disregard of their own welfare, their customers. The network that connects The People and The Artists is healing itself. Artists are embracing new, digital distribution models, even as the Record Labels fight with online retailers over how to price gouge the few “honest people” willing to give them another chance. Their greed ravages their opportunities. Musicians will use the easiest avenue to their audience and many are finding that direct to customer distribution, sans Record Labels, is suiting them better than ever.
Copyright was designed to promote progress in the arts. In a world with online digital distribution, distribution as an exclusive right becomes counter-intuitive to the entire spirit of copyright. And while customers are punished for the Record Labels’ refusal to join the new paradigm, artists are finding a way. Trent Reznor recently illustrated it best on stage; “now my record label all around the world hates me, because I yelled at them, I called them out for being greedy fucking assholes. I didn’t get a chance to check, has the price come down at all? I see a no, a no, a no [...] STEAL IT.”