Publishing and Piracy

The last year or so has seen an almost endless stream of discussions on the subject of file sharing, peer-to-peer, music piracy, copy protection, and digital rights management. Unfortunately, most of these discussions involve only the technologists who understand the possibilities the internet brings. The publishers and money men seem to be lagging several years behind.

Napster opened in the middle of 1999. It lasted until mid 2001. That means it has been shut down for a year and a half now. And have the music publishers come up with a viable alternative? Er, no. They’ve been busy putting more extensive copy protection on their CDs so that customers (or, as they prefer, “consumers”) can’t put them up on Napster-like services in the first place.

Sigh. This is what us technologists find most frustrating. We are used to things happening in “internet time.” A new technique or standard is suggested one day, and a week later the first applications emerge. Stability is arived at in a matter of months; maturity comes within a year–two at most.

Two most interesting articles last week came from Robert X Cringely (who has been looking at these issues for the last few weeks) and Tim O’Reilly.

O’Reilly says:

“The music and film industries like to suggest that file sharing networks will destroy their industries.

Those who make this argument completely fail to understand the nature of publishing. Publishing is not a role that will be undone by any new technology, since its existence is mandated by mathematics. Millions of buyers and millions of sellers cannot find one another without one or more middlemen who, like a kind of step-down transformer, segment the market into more manageable pieces. In fact, there is usually a rich ecology of middlemen. Publishers aggregate authors for retailers. Retailers aggregate customers for publishers. Wholesalers aggregate small publishers for retailers and small retailers for publishers. Specialty distributors find ways into non-standard channels.”

Cringley says:

“The music recording industry is clinging to old habits. The world is changing, as is the way they COULD do business. Consumers are adapting, but the suppliers are not. Economics is like a seismic force. You can flow with the process or resist and cause the pressure to build. When it blows, it blows, and what could have been a process of logical evolution becomes a revolution and all the players change.”

Basically, the people who know what they’re talking about are getting sick and tired of all the heel-dragging that’s going on in the music publishing industry. (The book publishing industry is safe for a few years yet, because screen technology isn’t good enough to replace books.)

Here’s what I want out of a digital music service:

  • I want to type in the name of a song–any song–and get it. This was the original power of Napster. “Peer-to-peer” was just a distraction.
  • I want to be able to listen to songs on whatever device I like. If I download the song at home, I don’t want to have to pay again to listen to it at work, or on my minidisc player. Right now, the program that Sony provides with my minidisc player only allows me to place a single song on three different discs. I want to mix the music I’ve bought in any way I like.
  • I also want to be able to give a copy of a CDs or a minidisc to family or friends, to show them what I’m listening to, or to introduce them to cool new bands.
  • I want the digital format to be an open standard, so that–in principle–it can be played on any platform that chooses to support it. A proprietary format that only works on Windows isn’t going to cut it. Next year, I might decide to stick with Linux 🙂
  • I want to pay a fixed monthly fee for this service. I don’t want to have to think–let alone worry–about how much I’m spending when I listen to music. Having to watch the clock is a pain in the butt. Flat-fee, always-on, makes using the Internet just so much more pleasant. Going back to a per-minute or per-song system would seem like too much of a backwards step.
  • I want to pay for my music. I want to see the artists rewarded for their work. I want to see the publishers rewarded for their part in bringing the music to me.

Why is this so difficult? The technology to do this has been around for years.

I understand the concept of copyright, and I’m happy with it. I produce content (text, photos), and I don’t want people ripping it off. But there’s a difference between mass copying, and copying on a personal scale. One is piracy, and the other is free publicity. A system that does all the things I’ve outlined above would inhibit the former, while encouraging the latter.

I wish the music publishers would stop concentrating on copy protection, and start thinking about convenience. It’s just common sense.