Thursday, June 10, 2004

Music issues

Okay, so I'm an Open Source fan. No big surprise there. And a few days ago, one of my co-workers asked me if I was opposed to commercial software (like the kind we write, ya know). I responded that I'm not the least bit opposed to either commercial or proprietary software (making RMS a commie loon), although I feel like Open Source will displace most common closed source efforts, including Windows, within the next decade. Uncommon proprietary software, and single-use software (i.e. tailored for a single company's internal use, which I guess you could call extremely uncommon) will continue to be developed by for-hire teams, as will uninteresting software (i.e. stuff that a community doesn't form around), and service software (i.e. TaxCut). And it'll probably be done using Open Source development tools.

So there's my prognostication. But as part of the discussion, I mentioned that I fully support the creators of a thing having full rights to determine who gets and uses that thing, and how, and that I support full copyrights in software, movies and music, and that I'm probably one of 3 people in the U.S. that actually supports RIAA suing file swappers. Well, that started a long discussion, as you can imagine.

First off, I certainly agree with the current and growing opposition to music companies. I was shocked and dismayed when I learned that Michael Jackson owns the rights to The Beatles' music. And not just because it's Jacko, either; rather that George, Paul, Ringo and John *don't* own and share the rights. Going back to the previous paragraph, I feel that the creator of a thing needs to be who decides what happens to it. Now, apparently, they willingly sold the rights, but a system that expects artists to relinquish control of their creations is a problem. IMNSHO.

Secondly, the record companies are too big. You can't (or at least in most cases shouldn't) limit the size of a company, but in terms of "caring about art", the bigger the company, the less they'll care about the art they are responsible for, and the more they'll care only about the $$$ they make. David Crosby said this well in a PBS interview recently. (I don't know much about Crosby's politics (I mean, he was at Woodstock, so I'd guess he's a liberal, unfortunately), but I really enjoyed this particular article.)

Thirdly, if only a portion of the charges against the big record labels are true, they're quite unscrupulous in the way they pay (or, more accurately, don't pay) their artists. But this goes back to them caring more about $$$ than about the music.

Bottom line, so far, is that if the record companies are in trouble, that's a good thing. If people won't pay high CD prices, and don't collectively like the crap the companies are putting out, and that causes the companies to suffer, cool. It's the system providing negative feedback. Cause and effect, supply and demand, and all that.

A separate question, though, is whether or not wholesale file-swapping (Kazaa, Napster, etc.) is right or wrong, or whether RIAA is right or wrong to sue the swappers. My take is that swapping is wrong, and RIAA is legally right, but sorely misguided.

This position, of course, is based on the idea above of artists (or, in this case, the copyright holder) having the right to determine what happens to the property (in this case, the music). In our current system, they do (and IMO should) have this right, and as such, if they don't like what's happening to their property, they have the right (and perhaps the responsibility) to do something about it. (IANAL, but I seem to recall that in some cases, doing nothing is tantamount to giving permission).

Now, I'm not the least bit convinced that the companies are losing much money because of the swappers. I remember my high school and college days, where I taped radio and friends' albums, because I couldn't afford to buy much of my own, although I typically did go out and buy the best of the stuff I had copied. My feeling is that this is the same dynamic happening in the swapping world. But this makes no difference as to whether the suits are proper. If they're proper, it's because of rights of control, not whether or not they're protecting income.

Neither do I have any particular love for RIAA (or the BSA, either, for that matter) calling swapping (or piracy) theft. Even though the swappers are incorrect in swapping, they're correct in saying that they're not stealing anything. Taking a car is stealing. Copying an album is a violation of copyright (more verbosely: a violation of the right to copy). But it's not theft, as after the act, nobody is left without what they previously had.

On the other side, the swappers say that they should be allowed to do this because 1) we're poor, and 2) they (the record companies) are evil (see above). Neither argument holds water, unfortunately. Not being able to get what you want has never been justification for breaking the law. Neither do two wrongs make a right. (Although, yes, three lefts do.) Rosa Parks refusing to surrender her seat to a white person is civil disobedience: doing the right thing in the face of evil rules; justifying breaking copyright because you don't like the company you're doing it to is just selfish: doing what you want, while the rules are quite appropriate. Nobody is credibly saying that there shouldn't be copyright protections. (Although there are quite legitimate concerns with the lengthening of copyright terms, but that's a different subject, and not at issue here.)

But RIAA *is* misguided. New technology has happened before, with cassette tapes and VCRs, and it all came to naught. iTunes (and other services like it) are proving that folks will willingly pay for the convenience they get from (and improvements to) swapping services. People are wanting to take full advantage of the new technology (digital music, MP3s, etc.), and will find ways to do so, despite the best efforts of RIAA and the like to put the worms back in the can (so to speak). I, for one, will not buy music that cannot be ripped to MP3 and put on my computer at work. (And my entire MP3 stash at work is music that I have purchased, and have the physical CDs for.)

Current technology allows people to do what they want with their music. RIAA is well within their rights (and perhaps responsibility) to pursue people in violation of copyright law, but they are fostering much ill will with the rhetoric they use as they do so, especially as they seem to be doing very little to provide legitimate ways for listeners to do what they want with their music. And where they refuse to supply the goods that are in demand, others will replace them. (More on this shortly...)

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