Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Fighting Music Swappers

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Apr 13, 2004

Editor, Globe and Mail,

Re: Minister vows to fight music-swappers, Globe and Mail, April 13

Before rushing into action, Heritage Minister Helene Scherrer should stop to ask whether Canadians want the government to launch an offensive against online file sharers.

Canadians pay royalties on blank media used to record music. A prohibition against file sharing would make this use of the media illegal. One might wonder what it is, then, that we have been paying for all this time. Or why the music industry should be paid twice for the right to listen to a song.

Even were no royalties paid on blank media, the music industry would not be hurt by file sharing. Academic studies have shown that file sharing does not harm sales, and in some cases, it increases sales. Numerous artists have come out in favour of file sharing, noting that it provides the needed publicity music publishers are not providing.

I have no doubt that Canadians support the idea that artists should get paid for their work. But there is no reason to extend this sentiment to pay publishers for work that is no longer done or no longer needs to be done.

In an age where distribution costs have been reduced to almost nothing, where the manufacturing costs are zero, and where promotion is undertaken by listeners themselves, it is natural for people to want and expect things like music to cost less.

The music industry, through its opposition to file sharing, wants to protect not only its privileged position in the marketplace, it wants to protect the income it derives by charging consumers costs that no longer exist. And it wants the government to support it in this position.

If the music industry has been suffering a decline, it could be because the selection (and some would say, the quality) of music has been in a constant decline. Moreover, until recently, prices have remained inflated, so much so that a U.S. court found major publishers to be in collusion.

The prohibition against file sharing perpetuates a situation where a smaller and smaller selection of music, mostly from U.S.-based culture factories, is available.

Walk into any music store, and after you mave made your way past the racks of DVDs and souvineers, browse the scanty selection available. Unless you are strictly of Top 40 tastes, your search will be fruitless. The selection of music online is similarly limited, with nothing beyond today's mainstream available, unless one ventures beyond the legitimate download sites.

The Minister may also want to consider whether Canadians would support the abridgement of their rights that would follow the passage of anti-sharing legislation and the ratification of recent WIPO provisions governing copyright.

Similar legislation in the United States (the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) has allowed the music industry to take legal action, including search and seizure of property, without evidence of wrongdoing. It has been used to prohibit academic research. It also prohibits the use of decryption technology to play music files you already own.

What is at stake in this debate is not merely a question of royalties paid once, twice, or not at all. It is a question of control over the means of distribution. This is why the music industry attacks the technology itself, such as Kaaza, rather than the act of selling someone else's songs.

Were Canadians (or anyone else) able to create and distribute music freely on the internet, the music industry's essential lock on the market would be breached. Small and independent songwriters - the majority of Canada's industry - would have the same access to the market as the giants. Royalties would be paid directly to artists. A vast catalogue of music could be made available.

The debate over file sharing isn't simply a matter of protecting honest vendors against thieves. It is about whether these vendors should be able to hold a privileged position in the marketplace, protected by laws that enforce this position by limiting the rights of everyone else, rights we have had since publication became possible at all.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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