My rejoinder to another rejoinder to Doctorow’s rejoinder

Paul Raven @ 19-11-2010

Serendipity striketh again, in the form of Helliene Lindvall’s response to Cory Doctorow’s response to her earlier piece  attacking advocates of free-content business models for creatives. The Guardian may be missing a trick, here; this could become some sort of central-court ideology-tennis match. Give ’em a slot each on alternating days, and see how long it runs!

(My money’s on it going the distance; I think the questions around artist business models are currently unanswerable because of the economic flux we’re surfing on. Which is why the debate is important; better to design and build a wall against the coming flood than to wait until the water arrives and provides you with precise design parameters.)

Hell, better yet: set up a video recorder, let ’em do a face-to-face debate, then put it out there for the people to see… right after a lengthy argument about whether to paywall it, natch. (I think there’s a certain subtle irony to Lindvall’s piece appearing in the staunchly free-to-air online version of The Guardian… )

Aaaaanyway, it’s a more reasonable piece than Lindvall’s first, despite a few scare quotes and caricatures (“media gurus”! – is it wrong that I conjure an image of a sadhu with a cellphone when I read that phrase?):

One argument against my stance was that there’s no point in trying to prevent copying, as it’s so easy to do – and is only getting easier. It is so easy to violate the artist’s choice, why bother respecting the rules that protect that choice? However, there are many things that are easy to do, yet are not legally or morally right – for instance, posting anonymous threats saying you’d like to kill someone.

I’m not sure exactly what the rhetorical classification of that riposte is, but I think it’s a little bit reductio ad Hitlerum; comparing the copying of digital media to sending death threats is not exactly proportional in ethical terms. An attention-grabbing way to begin, though, I’ll grant you.

Just because an illegal act is easier to commit on the web, in the comfort of an anonymous mob, than in the physical world where there is a greater likelihood of apprehension doesn’t mean that our laws and ethics should somehow be suspended.

The ease of duplication is little to do with the anonymity of the web, it’s a function of the infinitely reproducible and lossless nature of digital media. Thumb-drive  sneakernet party, anyone? Exactly the same problem arose from the proliferation of cassette tapes, albeit a slower and more lossy version thereof… and the music industry defeated that problem very neatly with the compact disc. Laws and ethics shouldn’t be suspended, no; nor should the need for businesses to innovate if they wish to stay profitable.

Producing a record – as opposed to writing most books – tends to be a team effort involving a producer (sometimes several of them) and songwriters who are not part of the act, studio engineers and a whole host of people who don’t earn money from merchandise and touring – people who no one would pay to make personal appearances.

I’m sure there’s a lot of editors, agents, proofreaders, copyeditors, cover artists, layout geeks and beta readers who’ll be astonished to realise that their contribution to the production of a novel is effectively negligible. But then they’re mostly busy trying to figure out how to make their careers survive the transition to digital, so perhaps we can forgive them that oversight.

Many songwriters and producers I know have been excited about getting their songs recorded, only to see it given away as a free digital download by the artist or label. Though it may help promote the artist it does nothing to promote these writers and producers, as downloads don’t display any credits.

Surely that oversight is the fault of the label’s implementation of the free give-away, rather than the free give-away itself? The producer or writer chose to sign the contract that allowed the label to do it, right? Caveat creator; if you choose to go to bed with the money-men, you must live with the consequences. Likewise, if you make your own choices about whether to give your stuff away, you must sleep in the bed you made for yourself. Take responsibility for your own career, or don’t; simple choice, really.

Another argument used by proponents of the “free” business model is that record labels have mistreated artists for decades and so deserve to go out of business – so to them I guess two wrongs make a right.

Not sure I see where that second wrong is, here; in fact, it strikes me that the collapse of the record labels is a consequence of their own failure to act. No one is actively threatening the record label business model, it’s simply failing to adapt to a changing environment. Evolve or die. I’ll certainly cop to feeling a certain amount of schadenfreude over the demise of the big labels, but that’s probably because I’ve listened to sermons in the Church of Albini. Your karma just ran over your dogma; it’s not two wrongs making a right, it’s cause and effect. Lose public trust, lose your business.

I signed my first publishing deal almost 10 years ago with BMG, who ended up being bought by Universal. Sure, I’ve had my issues with them through the years. Yet I don’t regret signing with them as they provided me, an unproven songwriter, with the means to write music full time (I’m sure authors can relate) and develop my craft.

“I got a great deal out of my signing, therefore all signings are fair.” I refer the honourable lady once again to the Church of Albini. Perhaps his numbers there represent an equally rare but opposite polar extreme… but having spent most of my adult life around working and/or aspiring musicians, I rather suspect it isn’t.

They’ve even agreed to give the songs that haven’t yet been covered back to me – despite not having to, contractually.

Very rare, if I’m not mistaken, and a comparatively recent development; music history is littered with lawsuits by bands and songsmiths great and small who fought – often unsuccessfully – for the ownership of their own material (paging Jello Biafra). But bravo, BMG; perhaps this will become a blanket policy for all artists you sign, and all the artists you’ve signed before?

… others would argue that the principle of CC licensing is simply to give creative works away for free in what Lessig calls the “hybrid economy”. Giving away the works benefits the owners of the distribution platform, such as Flickr, YouTube or Google, not the individual creators licensing their works under Creative Commons.

And selling the works of musicians benefits the shareholders of the record companies – so where’s the difference? No one is forced to license their material as CC; no one is forced to use any particular platform to store and share their work… and there’s the difference. There’s a lot less choice once you’ve signed your contract with Sony BMG, I’m guessing. They get to make all those decisions on your behalf… and I’m sure they’ll have your best interests foremost in their minds as they do so.

And there are other issues. For instance: what constitutes “non-commercial”? Selling YouTube for $1.65bn? Selling Flickr for $35m?

“Web-based media sharing platforms in profit-making shock horror probe!” I’m pretty sure HMV and Tower Records and Amazon were always pretty interested in making a profit, too… but again, the artist didn’t get a choice about where their material ended up being sold (and, subsequently, who ended up getting a cut of the sales price). It’s a bit weird to argue for art as a commercial endeavour and then criticise proponents of a different model for using commercialised distribution channels… how shameful of them to compromise with the capitalist world around them in a way that lets their work be seen on their own terms! Hypocrites!

I believe a successful future for content creators consists of a combination of solutions, one of them being unlimited ISP music subscriptions bundled in with their broadband access deals.

I have some sympathy with this idea, as it happens, but it has all sorts of potential loopholes through which record labels can get themselves back to steady-income business-as-usual; I believe this is a process commonly referred to as “protectionism”. And hey, wait a minute – some of those ISPs are big profit-making businesses! So they’re exploitative middlemen in exactly the same way as YouTube and Flickr, are they not?

I believe it’s detrimental to suggest that creators should be defeatist and not participate in this evolution – that what they’ve created has no value so they may as well give it away.

While there’s a lot of ways to interpret Doctorow’s stance, suggesting that he’s telling creators to “not participate in [the] evolution” of the markets in which they wish to place their work is not one that I can reach with any logical train of thought; quite the opposite, in fact.

Indeed, I’d have thought that saying “leave it to the labels, the ISPs and the government to fix” was much closer to that doctrine… but hey, I give my work away on the internet, so I doubtless got brainwashed long ago. *shrug*

Y’all enjoy that new Girl Talk mash-up album, won’t you?