Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Few Thoughts on SOPA and the General Fight Against Piracy

I was just thinking about SOPA and its consequences, and I started thinking about it the way I've viewed the numerous attempts to fight Internet piracy over the years. The conclusion I've come to, every time, is that it doesn't matter. No legislation, no control mechanism, no technology can take down the online piracy network that has been around, growing, and consolidating itself since the very start of the Internet. And that's a good thing. 

Why? Because it means that whatever they try, the MPAA, the RIAA, and those other vestiges of an industry whose methodology is quickly fading into history will not find a way to circumvent the "problem" of online piracy. This will lead to the self-collapse of their industry and the further development of the new, Internet- and sharing-based entertainment industry of tomorrow (well, actually, today too). (Note: For argument's sake, I'm going to use the music industry as a specific case because it is the one I know best.) And gloriously, this new industry has the capacity to bring back the music culture of yesteryear - yes, the one the Big 4 and the RIAA have been moaning about: how concert attendance is down, how no one pays for tickets anymore... This might seem strange, but follow my logic for a bit.

In the "Golden Age" of the dying mainstream music industry, people bought vinyls which enticed them to go to concerts, get high, hook up, and buy merch. The dinosaur music industry made money from three of those activities: the "purchase of music", or rather the purchase of vinyl discs (and then cassettes and then CDs) containing music, the concert tickets, and the merch. The artist would make a (horribly small) percentage of each revenue stream. But it didn't matter because the industry paid for them to live like rockstars, which they gladly did. The problem was, the industry started realizing that very quickly, the largest and most lucrative revenue stream was the sale of vinyls/cassettes/CDs. So that became the main product. The entire focus of the industry fell on marketing these objects that contained the music. David Byrne once said in an extremely good article: "Calling the product music is like selling a shopping cart and calling it groceries." The point is that the music was no longer the central aspect of the entire music industry! The industry assumed that people would buy these music containers and they assumed this would lead to concert attendance. Which it did...

Until the Internet arrived. At first, the industry struggled to comprehend what had just landed. And with good reason: it's extremely hard to forecast how new technologies are going to affect things. But it has to be said that the music industry didn't exactly handle it well. As soon as it became practical to do so, people started copying CDs and sharing them, online as well as offline, for free! The established industry didn't know what was happening and decided to continue their same old business model online. Thus was born the iTunes Store - the single biggest disgrace in the entire history of the music industry. The industry thought that since people had moved from vinyls to cassettes to CDs so easily, they could just move to this new digital format without any problem. But they could not have been more wrong.

As illustrated in the brief CD sharing example above, the music had suddenly re-become the focus of the consumer's attention. Not the vinyl/cassette/CD, but the music itself. And an industry that for 50 years had been selling products containing music were suddenly trying to sell pure music. Because that's what a digital song file is: nothing tangible, just 100% audio. But when something becomes the focus of the consumer's attention, any successful industry needs to make that its focus as well. Yet the old music industry kept trying to sell us (shitty quality) files. However, the true music consumers were having none of it - they turned first to Napster, then to true piracy.

This all naturally coincided with the rise of the indie musician: home recording was becoming cheap and high-quality enough to seriously contend with the "professional" stuff. And with indie musicians came indie thinking: what if we didn't need the old-style music industry? These visionaries realized that if the people wanted music - well then, we should give them music. So they started sharing their work for free. Nada! You could get a professional-sounding album of amazing music for absolutely nothing, and the artist was totally OK with it! What?!

Then came services like Bandcamp, which offered artists their own online store and complete control over how to charge (or not) for their work. And it quickly became apparent that the real winners were the artists who weren't afraid to let their audience pay whatever they wanted (or could afford) for their music. Matt Stevens and Steve Lawson, I'm looking at you. Obviously physical CDs need a minimum price to pay for the manufacturing and distribution costs - but that's exactly the point (again): with vinyls/cassettes/CDs, the music industry had led us to believe that the $14 we were paying was for "music", but it wasn't. It was for a disc which contained music on it. The Internet made us re-discover the fact that pure music is hard to charge for.

The music industry kept a watchful eye on all of this, and got seriously freaked out. So they (logically?) decided to fight back. They saw Napster and managed to shut it down. They even managed to shut down Limewire (thankfully - that thing was horrible). But they could not shut down the pirates. They could not shut down YouTube. They could not shut down all the places where you can get or stream stuff "illegally". They could not shut down the mighty Google that gives access to all these things. They could not shut down the piracy of the intangible digital files that have become our focus as consumers. And they kept thinking about it in terms of a product whose theft goes against copyright.

The copyright discussion is for another time and place, but the main idea is that copyright was originally meant to protect the intellectual property of the content creator (hence the name of the Protect IP Act). But you are in absolutely no way harming the IP of a content creator when you pirate their work for private purposes. This was true even before the Internet. When you steal a physical CD, it's not the music on it whose "copyright you are violating". It is the fact that you wrongfully stole an object with a set monetary value that is wrong. The IP of the musician(s) whose music is on that CD would be intact whether you paid for it or not. The Internet has simply exposed this side of it all.

I'm a content creator, and I have no problem giving my music away for free. As long as others don't make money from it, and as long as it is properly and correctly credited as mine, my IP is intact. The same goes for every single band and musician and filmmaker and photographer in the world. And this is why Creative Commons is the answer.

How in the hell does this bring back the music culture? you might rightfully ask at this point. Well, here's my theory. As musicians, we can no longer count on the "sale of music" (whatever that means) as a reliable revenue stream. We can sell CDs to the passionate few, we can sell vinyls to the hipsters, and we'll get nice people who will drop a few bucks for an album download. On the other side, consumers aren't going crazy over having a certain piece of music - it's so easy to get when it's free, it's not special anymore. Having a vinyl or a CD is special - having a downloaded folder isn't. But what is special?

A fucking insane live show. Concert attendance in the alternative groups I have mingled with, who have no problem downloading music for free, is through the roof. While Lady Gaga might have trouble selling out a stadium now, Eluveitie has no problem filling the Opera House in Toronto. They know most of their audience listens to pirated copies of their music. So their live show is awesome and people go to it.

Other special things? Merch. Doing exclusive things with the band. Anything else that is physical and/or tangible. These can all be monetized by musicians. And that's the way the new music industry is going to work. And that's how it's going to bring back the music culture that is apparently being lost.

So back to SOPA, shall we? If it goes through, it would suck. Majorly. They could take down countless websites. But as long as they keep thinking of digital files in terms of a product whose theft constitutes copyright violation, they will not win. They will slowly collapse (as they are already doing), and a new industry will be already there, thriving, ready to pick up the pieces. I hope to be a part of that industry, even if it isn't full time. I just know how awesome it's going to be and how cool the future looks. And there's absolutely nothing SOPA, or any other form of legislation, can do about that.

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