So a little while ago I came across this, which made me rather sad. It is a website which allows people to download folk music for free without paying for it, maintained by someone who isn’t the copyright holder and who doesn’t ask for permission before uploading other people’s albums. Lúnasa’s Donogh Hennessy took umbrage (lovely word) at this and requested them to be taken down. This invoked some reaction from the readers, which I think sadly displays the way that things are going in this area. What follows is a microcosm of my views today, as I could write reams on this subject.
It won’t surprise you, hypothetical reader, to learn that I take the artist’s position on this issue. Lúnasa has spent a lot of time and money producing many excellent albums and I own several. If their albums are offered on the internet for free download then what return do they get on this investment? Recording an album is expensive. Studio time is charged by the hour generally and there is a huge of amount of work needed to mix and master.
Of course, some would argue that allowing people to download them for free spreads the word and the band will get increased publicity. This means that more people will want to go to their gigs, which means that the money lost on a recording is worth it. This is a decidedly risky strategy. It involves a large initial investment for a nebulous and difficult to measure reward. I think that it’s fairly safe to say that although this will work for some artists, it will not work for everyone (there are only so many hit spots available) and so there is the potential for the artist to lose a lot of money.
I’m not disputing that this approach can work. Several artists have given away albums for free, including Prince’s 20Ten. Others have gone down the honesty box route, such as Radiohead’s In Rainbows. They did quite well out of it, so it can work. But I feel that it only really works for people of their sort of calibre and appeal. For folk groups? Less likely.
The most common response to the taking down of Lúnasa’s material was “I would never have heard of you if it wasn’t for this site, now I never will and you will lose out because people won’t hear about you”. Aside from the fact that Lúnasa is well known and deservedly so, I think that these people miss the point. They aren’t complaining about the exposure, but about the theft of their intellectual property. They wouldn’t object if there was just a post advertising their group, perhaps with a link to YouTube (although I’m not sure who is the copyright owner for a recording of a gig – the festival perhaps?) or with 30s samplers of their tracks, as the legal download sites tend to do. But the users seem to think that it is their right to have possession of someone else’s property.
Measures aiming to tackle this problem, such as SOPA, have encountered huge opposition from all corners of the internet world. The internet is all about sharing and to deny that means provoking all users to outrage. The internet is challenging society in many ways, this much is indisputable. People are more knowledgeable than ever they were, thanks to Wikipedia. Dealing with people from other cultures and backgrounds is beginning to reduce the amount of ignorance-based discrimination (citation needed). People can find kindred spirits from all over the world, like I have with the various music fora that I have contributed to over the years. The internet has made a big difference to society and this difference is mainly apparent in the younger generation, who grew up with it, rather than the policy makers, who don’t really understand it. Internet culture is an ecosystem, with its own rules and decorum. l33t an lolsp33k haz evn pwn3d teh English amirite? (apologies to everyone for that last sentence)
So is the dilution of copyright that the internet implies inevitable? Probably. You don’t have to like something to appreciate that it will happen and if I were to predict what the future will hold I would say that the internet and the digital age will drastically disrupt copyright in every sphere. The rise of e-books and self-publishing is already shaking the publishing industry, the huge amount of pirated TV and film material is causing convictions and extraditions for people my age (which is shockingly unjust). This is a battle which through heavy-handed tactics is being lost as we speak.
What it boils down to is this: on the internet, people expect to find what they want instantly and for free, something for nothing. It is this culture, this mindset, which needs to be tackled, not the material process of sharing, which is integral to how the internet works. If the only way of prevention that people can come up with is brute force then they will lose.
There are sites which are going in the right direction. Bandcamp is a good example. It allows artists to have control over how their music is sold and has transparent charges. It allows people to listen to the music for free, but charges to download. This enables people to enjoy the music immediately and for free, which is the current paradigm, but also enables them to contribute if they think it worth the money. I think that the only way of sustaining the concept of digital copyright is to promote a feeling of duty to those that provide the goods or services and this sort of system is a way of doing that.
The internet is changing how we view the world. I remain convinced that this is a good thing, but offline society cannot fight it. They must embrace it or they will lose what they are fighting for.
p.s. My finals are next week, so don’t expect another blog post for a little while!