The debate at the British Music Experience did not bode well – eleven speakers on a panel – more of a soccer team than a debate. But the presence of a member of the Pirate Bay team added an interesting dimension. Inevitably, the debate itself was rather superficial. The moderator struggled manfully to keep the discussion on-theme and tried rather unsuccessfully to avoid the whole thing circling round the Pirate.
I didn’t manage to say it very well last night, but while we all lined up to land a rhetorical punch on the visiting Pirate, the ongoing phenomenon of piracy as a globally, technologically enabled catalyst for change is really the key thing to remember.
Considering that he has a criminal conviction hanging over his head, he didn’t seem so bad, the Pirate, even though we all condemn what he was part of. He didn’t seem like a malicious human being out to subvert the very moral framework of our lives. He seems like a nice, well-educated middle class tecchy, with some impish delight and without much sympathy for an industry so fragile that he could deflate its balloon with his tiny needle.
The anarchic tendency of file-sharers is a social phenomenon empowered by the technology. It is derived from both great technological facility and basic human greed. From a successful artist’s perspective, file-sharing fans may look like ”greedy thieves” but then from the perspective of the developing world that may also be how European and North American consumers appear. A developing artist may see it that way too.
File-sharing is also a technological capability that, having been unleashed on society, is highly unlikely to go away. I don’t think it’s like a smallpox virus that can be eradicated. Close down the Pirate Bay this week and another Bit Torrent site will pop up next week. Find a way to reduce the popularity or effectiveness of this particular form of unauthorised file-sharing and another technology will replace it. The chances are also that the newer forms of file-sharing will be less easy to detect, less easily identified with the individuals at various ends of the process – until our detection methods improve and seek to clamp them down, and so the cycle will continue.
There is a shift in attitude of mind required. We have to look at a world in which the reproduction right and the control of it are progressively eroded. Given the woefully low level of economic development of alternative methods of funding content, we are fortunate that the rate of erosion is slower than it might have been. Whether the impending new legislation in the UK will slow that erosion any more, I somehow doubt. And unfortunately I believe the cost of that legislation to civil liberties and freedom of speech will be much greater than the likely cultural and economic benefit it strives to achieve.
For those of us toiling in the cultural digital fields however, this kind of legislation also has another negative effect. It continues to provide incumbent businesses with a remedial focus on prevention of piracy rather than on investment in new solutions to the economic problem it causes. Worldwide expenditure on anti-piracy measures is out of all proportion to the worldwide investment in new digital content business models. More importantly the investment in new ways to invest in content is not coming from the music industry. It’s coming from new entrants who are faced with the prospect of rights holders who make it difficult and expensive to try new things out. Rights holding companies typically demand advances and even equity in companies that dare to enter their sector with a new idea for creating economic growth.
The short-term benefits of growth required on a quarterly basis by shareholders and the stock markets drives the strategic perspective of publicly traded corporations. Quarterly results and end of year bonuses force executive boards into myopic decision-making. That is what they are required to do. For years I have been angered or frustrated by this, but the harsher the economic environment, the more steely their focus must be on making those short-term returns.
Incumbent publicly traded companies in the creative industries today have less opportunity than they ever have to take long-term strategic decisions. They struggle with the ambivalent solution and control approaches of the major technology companies who are driving their own agendas in very narrowly harnessed partnerships, or direct head-to-head conflict with the economic goals of the major rights holding companies.
In order to defeat this vicious cycle of wasted energy and denial, we do need to find some ways to intervene. One way is to force the companies to open up their rights to new entrants at low cost. A second way is to address the copyright regime and bring it up to date.
The artist community, I believe, has to take the lead here in being progressive and forward-looking in a way that a creative individual can be, but a corporation cannot.
Artists of the world have to look at their innermost conflict and try to find a way out. Every artist or indeed creative producer today feels a degree of conflict about the fate of his or her work in the marketplace. Artists feel strongly that having created a piece of work they want the world to share in it. Part of the definition of being an artist is fulfilling a desire to communicate. If you have such a desire then you are likely to want to communicate with the largest possible audience you can reach.
Very few artists are satisfied with the idea that their work is only made for a small audience. Most artists appreciate their small audience but would feel better if it could be growing. And then there is the question of getting paid. Here there is much more disagreement in the community, both about the scale of remunerative ambition, and about the basis upon which it should be achieved. Not every artist wants to be a millionaire, but every artist who believes in him or herself would like to be able to make a “decent living” out of making their work.
The conflict between the artist’s desire to share their work with as wide an audience as possible and their desire to make a decent living, come into sharp relief when faced with the prospect that, once they release their work, it will be share-without-payment, globally.
Artists are used too often as the excuse for why content cannot be made available widely, for why cumbersome one-on-one conversations are required to gain clearance or permissions. Artists’ ethics and moral values are set up as the barriers which rights exploiters can use as the means to raising prices. “They’ll never agree to that usage. OK for $30,000 they will.”
Rights exploiters use artists, basically, as the moral justification for immoral actions or for simply achieving economic leverage. And very often the benefit of such behaviour is greater for the exploiter than the rights owner.
If artists were able to lead in demanding a significant and world-leading change in the law of copyright, the exploiting companies would lose the moral basis for their economic motivations.
Artists could change the world by standing up and saying, “We do not want copyright to be about a reproduction right in a world where the reproduction of our content can no longer be controlled.” We want copyright to ensure that artists get paid for their work equitably in equal proportion to the effort involved in its creation, promotion and distribution. We want copyright to ensure that artists are credited by name for the work that they create. And we want copyright to ensure that specific moral and ethical requests made by an artist are respected. So, if an artist says, “I don’t want my work used in advertising at all,” that is adhered to. But, that the default condition of their work is that it is available for use, to be licensed from day one automatically, without need for negotiation.
The more that artists and the entire creative community are able to take a lead on pursuing this perspective, the more likely we are to be able to develop new sustaining methods of ensuring a commercial return for creative endeavour. We need to wind down the over-investment in anti-piracy and make the radical changes needed to start stimulating future investment that will allow for high quality cultural work to thrive.