Tuesday, December 19, 2006

We Owe Them Nothing

You might think that by now everyone would have realised that peer-to-peer filesharing trounces media companies' traditional (ie 20th Century) business model. In fact, when else do you even hear the phrase "business model"? For a while there was a valid industry in selling facsimiles of music in various forms - sheet music, wax cylinders, CDs, etc - back when copy-making was a complex and costly business. Now it isn't, the industry's raison d'ĂȘtre has evaporated. (They never did sell actual music, of course, because that's impossible. If recording had never been invented, there would be no music industry, and musicians would probably still do what they've always done - earn money entertaining people through live performance, or indulge their muse while sponging off a friendly rich person.) This is what made me so rabid about the Gowers report and - particularly - press reaction to it. To pretend that p2p is a fringe activity whose practitioners a few tech-savvy police can round up and toss in jail is not just to miss the point, but to lob a nuclear grenade vertically in the air. The only reason for retaining copyright on private sharing is as a handy persecution mechanism for Joe Normal.

For the social net challenges more than one particular business model, it challenges the notion of business itself. For decades, the idea of basing an economy on sharing rather than trade has seemed an airy-fairy, wouldn't-it-be-nice-if ideology, rather than a practical possibility. Now, there is a growing, grass-roots communism lodged in capitalism's heart. This is not some high-falutin' political theory imposed by a minority of agitators, it's a groundswell of millions of ordinary self-interested folk discovering the cultural, social and monetary benefits of sharing.

That forward-thinking artists are also joining the p2p revolution comes as a surprise to some, but you only have to look at authors of wiki pages, FAQs, blogs and tutorials - the entire open source software movement - to see how normal it is for creative people to 'give away' their work for everyone's benefit.

It has been widely noted that the advent of 'Web 2.0' has seen a change in the way people... uh... "consume media" online. While the sheer quantity of material being copied from hard drive to hard drive worldwide, without a penny changing hands, has never been higher there is, in addition, a shift in emphasis from established big names to smaller artists and homegrown art. This is of course completely healthy, but it's even scarier for record labels than the viral spread of the fruit of "their" artists' labours. First, we just wanted it all for free. Now, we are learning that music itself is not a commodity at all, it only seemed that way because it mostly manifested as a lump of matter. No wonder "content owners" (they wish) have responded so chaotically to the rise of YouTube. Do they want to crush it or embrace it? They don't know, themselves; there is no real answer to: "you can shrivel and die for all we care - your business is irrelevant".

It is natural for people to feel confused and, in the case of record giants - indeed the entire established business world - threatened by an imminent flowering of people-power in the intrinsically social environment engendered by the Net. But while we mouse-wielding revolutionaries should be compassionate towards employees of such businesses, we owe the companies nothing. In fact it would be a social good to dismantle the music industry forthwith: their work is no longer of any social benefit. (That it is also almost totally despicable is academic at this point.)

Instead of imposing unnatural copy-restriction in a vain attempt to retroactively apply old thinking to this refreshing, healthy and empowering new way of doing things, we should be asking how the physical world of less intangible commodities, and its attendant drain on the world's finite resources, can be made more like the online free-for-all.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Copyright Penalties to be Extended

No change otherwise

I'm snowed under at work, but someone has to say this: Andrew Gowers is a reactionary old goon who should be ignored. He's the bloke who's supposedly going to recommend that the government not extend the period of copyright beyond the current 50 years.

Well, pardon me if I don't give even one cheer. While a lot of fuss has been made about Cliff Richard's impending loss of earnings from hits he had in the 1950s, and how marvellous it is that some ex-editor of a rightwing paper has seen sense in leaving our times' most controversial area exactly as it is, not a lot has been said about the sting in the tail of his report: that filesharers are recommended to be lumped in with forgers and imprisoned for up to 10 years.

Does this man actually live in the same century as the rest of us? It's bad enough that people who want to share their delight in new music are criminalised under existing legislature, drawn up in times when copying music cost money. Now, if this old duffer has his way, practically everyone with a computer is heading straight to jail.

The man's an idiot. Don't give him the time of day.