The posts below are selected and edited from a Metafilter thread started on 5 August 2003 by Nauip about the effect of downloading on the music industry; the thread later broadened to include other issues of online copyright. Comments by people other than myself are highlighted in blue.


how [is] downloading music that is out of print ... less ethical than purchasing the same music for prohibitively expensive prices from a record collector? in both cases, the artist is not making any money, but how giving some guy $80 for a 5" chunk of aluminum is somehow better than downloading everything for free and waiting for the cd to be reissued escapes me. ¶ posted by pxe2000

The trouble is, a lot of record company execs would no doubt like to kill the trade in 5" chunks of aluminium too. There have been various attempts to quash or control the second-hand trade in books and records over the years; all part of the same effort to lock up control of creative product.

The crux of it is that the big entertainment companies have a love-hate relationship with fans—the true fans, the fans who go beyond a casual liking of a single song. They love that the fans give them money, and they love the side-effect of the fans' activities of raising awareness (and therefore sales) of their artists. But they hate having to deal with the level of obsession that fans show. They don't like fans seeking out bootlegs or mp3s of out-of-print tracks, because that's the company's property, but they don't want to go to the effort to make them available in a high-quality product (unless it's an exceptional case, like the Beatles), because that takes considerable resources they would rather devote to a high-selling release. Why turn out a lovingly-compiled 4-CD box set with 50 page booklet which might sell a few thousand copies when you can press a single disk with minimal insert which will sell hundreds of thousands?

The same love/hate relationship drives the crackdown on fan websites, even though those can only be increasing interest in the very artists and creative products they're about. Entertainment companies want to get you hooked on their products to the point where they get maximum dollars out of the maximum number of people, but they don't want to deal with the repercussions of getting you hooked: the fact that you want to see or hear everything an artist or director or writer has ever done; the fact that their work has become such a big part of your life that of course you'll want to put Radiohead lyrics on your personal website, or Simpsons pictures, or Star Trek scripts, because in doing so you are saying something about who you are. Those words may have started out in Thom Yorke's brain, but now they're in yours, drummed in there by countless repetition, because you're a fan. But don't hum them aloud, because the day is coming when EMI will charge you a buck for even that privilege.

Man, to think that I once used to attach special significance to a certain record label, just because it was the one my own musical hero was signed to; I would pay extra attention to releases by his label-mates just because they had the same design on the 7" sleeve. The attitude the big labels have displayed over the past decade has eroded any of that residual respect or affection to zero. This latest instalment of "Oh my God, sales are down over the past two years, it's all the Internet's fault, let's corrupt every new disk we release with copy-control crap" while failing to mention that the number of new releases has been significantly down over that same period—let alone the impact of genuine piracy mentioned above—pretty much seals it.


I'm rather disappointed in the utter disrespect shown [in this thread] for those of us who work in artistic fields. If I made (and copyrighted) fridge magnets of belching penguins, I would receive compensation for each copy of my creation. But since I write (and copyright) stories, I'm not entitled to receive compensation from each copy of my creation? Great. Good to know what will be considered a valuable contribution to society in the future. ... And I'm on the side that hates large record companies gouging customers and hoarding older recordings. I think there has to be a new economic model for music, and soon. But it has to involve fair compensation for the artist for every copy. ¶ posted by GhostintheMachine

It has to involve compensation for artists on the artist's terms. If the artist is happy with having the music (or writing, or whatever) out there for people, swell. But if the artist (or more broadly, the copyright holder) doesn't want that, it should be respected. ¶ posted by jscalzi

This is where the debate runs into a big ol' swamp of a greyish shade. Copyrights are granted by governments for limited terms (leaving aside the trend towards perpetual copyrights on the instalment plan) and give their holders limited control; they also grant the public certain rights, such as fair use, and unlimited use once the work passes into the public domain. There was once a time when a work could fall out of copyright within its creator's lifetime, and the creator would have no say over how it was then used, whatever their wishes. Respecting artists' wishes is an important factor in encouraging creativity, certainly, and a system of copyright should attempt to maximize the amount of creative work produced; but always respecting artists' wishes does not necessarily achieve the latter aim. Copyrights are granted by the community and should, in the final analysis, be of benefit to the community. The benefits they bring to artists are a happy side-effect, which ideally will encourage maximum production of artistic work, but even a watertight copyright system carries no guarantee of that, and artists were quite capable of creating sizable bodies of work before copyright even existed.

What GhostintheMachine sees as disrespect for artists I see as a necessary separation in people's minds between individual artists and the mass of artistic works. The world is now so flooded with information and entertainment that only the most high-profile of artists who have made a significant impact on us as individuals seem deserving of our attention and care. We can't possibly care about every single creator of every single artistic work that crosses our path; it would be exhausting. And if we don't care—well, we don't care. So we're forming our own patronage-like relationships with artists, where we'll consciously or unconsciously support some but not others—"I really like her books, so I'll buy them new when they come out; he's okay, maybe I'll borrow his from the library." It's not disrespect, it's just a natural inclination to rank people according to their importance to us, and treat them accordingly. If you're a stranger on the street, I'm not going to come up and offer you my spare bedroom for the weekend; if you're friend or family, it's yours.

It's unfortunate, in that it overlooks the fact that artistic works need artists to create them; but necessary, to avoid the psychological overload of trying to care about each and every artist everywhere. With the way copyright works today, everyone's a copyright holder. See that notice at the bottom of the page—you're an artist! Your every MetaFilter post is an artistic work.

This certainly presents a challenge for artists who want to get rich or even just pay the rent; the challenge is to form those sorts of patronage-like bonds with enough people to meet your economic goals. The more modest your goals, the easier that will be. And, I would argue, the more willing you are to harness the power of the Internet to build a community of fans, and not reject the whole medium because a bunch of non-fans are downloading your latest single, the easier it will be. jscalzi, for example, through his online presence and experiments with giving away copies of his work, has built up a sizable community of people interested in buying his books—people who probably would never have heard of him otherwise.

But it's a delicate balance, because if jscalzi (to take his name in a hypothetical-example vein) then turns around and sets his lawyers onto file-traders of his work, he risks alienating the very community he's built up. Only he can judge how much slack he's willing to allow; but, equally, he's the one who has to live with the repercussions if his judgment is wrong. The community granteth its fickle interest in your artistic work, and the community taketh away.

there has to be a new economic model for music, and soon. But it has to involve fair compensation for the artist for every copy

Where fair compensation may, in some cases, have a cash value of zero; but an intangible, long-term-relationship-building value worth a lot more than a buck an iTune.


It just disappoints me that something tangible is automatically more respected than the intangible. Were I a watchmaker, I would receive compensation based upon the popularity of my product. ... But as the creator of a product that can be rendered in digital form (music, movies, books, software), millions of people could be enjoying the product of my labours without a cent of compensation ever reaching me. Some here have argued that I should build up a demand for my product, to prove my value, before expecting compensation. Why? You don't demand that of any other producer. ... And what of the Margaret Mitchells, Harper Lees, and others whose first (and sometimes only) work turns out to be a masterpiece? They may only have one great work in them, for which they should be richly rewarded. Instead, you would leave them impoverished, and that to me is very wrong. ¶ posted by GhostintheMachine

Just wait until we get a nanotech Napster. Free everything for everybody! Karl Marx, come on down!

Instead, you would leave them impoverished

Who would? Someone in this thread would? Society as a whole would? Every society on Earth would?

Japan rewards its great artists by treating them as "national living treasures". Western countries hand out prizes on the basis of past work, lifetime achievement, and so on. People turned up to Frank Sinatra's concerts right up to his death, decades after his best work, just to pay homage, or to hear its echoes.

Besides: does anyone deserve to live for a lifetime off something they spent a year or two creating in their youth? It's nice if they can, sure, but do they deserve it? Should society guarantee it? Should an entire system built up to maximize public access to artistic works be held hostage to a very few, very gifted people who hope to be, or even deserve to be, very rich?

There are all sorts of ways to provide recognition and recompense for artistic achievement, and copyright is only one of them; and to strengthen copyright to the point where it effectively never expires, and effectively allows no fair use (which is the way it's heading in the digital environment, which is increasingly the entertainment and information environment), and cuts no slack whatsoever for a modest amount of creative reuse and exploration of better ways of getting art into public hands, is to destroy the balance between the rights of the creator and the rights of the public.

There are all sorts of reasons "why a person becomes an artist in the first place". Some have nothing to do with copyright: the desire for fame, or to be remembered after one's death, or simply to express oneself. Tightening up and extending copyright in the belief that it's the only way of meeting artists' needs for recognition and recompense is simply wrong. It's overkill, and it should be resisted.

I'm sure any of us can think of artists and artistic works we would think worthy of special celebration and veneration. But art being such a subjective beast, we're not all going to agree on exactly which ones those are. And the system of copyright is not intended to provide such guarantees or dispense that kind of justice. Limited protection for limited terms to encourage artistic production for the benefit of society. If some people can spin a book or two into a lifelong sinecure on that basis, good for them, but that isn't the aim of copyright, and should not be the basis on which it is determined.


Let's not mistake intentions here. I'm also in full agreement that extended copyrights are evil. ... I'm only arguing that the opposite (no copyright) is just as evil. I'm considering the future possibility that, once digital use is extended to books as well as music and movies ... writers (and other artists) will receive but a fraction of their current compensation for their work. ... It's nice to say art should be free, and most artists don't create great works to get rich. But they do need to eat, and if you take away their ability to be compensated for their work, there will be fewer and fewer works of art created. ... By removing the value from an artistic work (by rendering it digitally and freely distributing it) you are eliminating the only way some artists have to be compensated for their work. ... It's hard to eat electronic praise, and my landlord doesn't accept it either. ¶ posted by GhostintheMachine

Those are fair concerns, but others of us are considering the future possibility that if things keep going the way they are, the digital environment will be distorted into one which benefits only the big entertainment corporations and allows no leeway for small players trying to use its potential in creative ways. Big business wants total control over the Internet, and it's getting closer and closer to achieving it. The net has been the biggest challenge to artistic, entertainment and publishing gatekeepers in decades. Entertainment companies resisted the introduction of cable TV, they resisted the introduction of VCRs, they resisted sampling, and now they're resisting this.

But this time, the risk is that they'll achieve their aims through restrictive legislation and DRM before we've had time to figure out what the real effect of a free and open Internet is. We haven't even had a decade of widespread public use of the Web, yet record companies are singling out a two year downturn at a time of global economic uncertainty as 'proof' that the net kills creativity. Well if the net kills creativity, what the hell are we doing here? What is this place, what is this environment, what is this outpouring of creativity we see all around us? Is that all irrelevant, inauthentic creativity, just because it isn't served up to us by Disney or AOL Time Warner?

All I can recommend is to read Lawrence Lessig's The Future of Ideas. He says it all in more detail than I'll ever manage. It's not about killing copyright dead; it's about keeping the leeway and the flexibility that allows wonderful new things to emerge into the world, despite the best efforts of vested interests to quash them.

And I'm not unsympathetic to artists... my father is an artist. I'm an artist (in the broad sense of the term), when I'm not doing the day job to pay the mortgage. I've had times where my only income has been from my art. I'm not saying all art should be free; I'm saying we have to keep some flexibility, or else big business will be able to hold our creative culture to ransom.

5-7 August 2003


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