Paul Graham wrote a great essay recently, about how the definition of property has changed over time, and how this is relevant to the music and film industries in particular.
As a child I read a book of stories about a famous judge in eighteenth century Japan called Ooka Tadasuke. One of the cases he decided was brought by the owner of a food shop. A poor student who could afford only rice was eating his rice while enjoying the delicious cooking smells coming from the food shop. The owner wanted the student to pay for the smells he was enjoying. The student was stealing his smells!
This story often comes to mind when I hear the RIAA and MPAA accusing people of stealing music and movies.
It sounds ridiculous to us to treat smells as property. But I can imagine scenarios in which one could charge for smells. Imagine we were living on a moon base where we had to buy air by the liter. I could imagine air suppliers adding scents at an extra charge.
The comments on the article brought out the old for-and-against copyright arguments. Very few actually engaged his main point, which is this: the idea that a book, a song or a movie is something you can own is not an immutable law of the universe, but a by-product of a particular era in history. That’s not to say it’s a bad idea — it’s enabled the existence of full-time, professional artists where before there was only patronage by the wealthy — but it’s an idea that is rapidly becoming obsolete.
I’d say the idea of copyright depends on two things: mass reproduction being possible, and mass reproduction being excludable (ie, possible to prevent other people from doing it).
Before the printing press, there were few books, and no novels at all — only worthy texts hand-transcribed by monks. Before the phonograph and the camera, there was no recorded music or movies, only live musicians or theatre. The printing press, phonograph and camera made mass reproduction of books, music and movies possible.
Take music in particular — whereas before, enjoying music had always required live musicians, music could now be stored on platters, copied thousands of times, and shipped around the world. But not anyone could reproduce the music; the publishers’ copyright — their right to copy — was easily defended.
If you wanted a high fidelity recording, you’d need access to the original artist. Sellers of bootleg tapes or ripped CDs could steal a few sales here and there, but they couldn’t undermine a publishers’ copyright completely. A bootlegger might get away with a few dozen copies sold to friends, but they couldn’t start pressing thousands of copies and hope to get away with it. Likewise for books and movies.
That was the golden age of copyright — and it was a golden age, since it enabled a simple business model (selling physical products) that supported a whole class of professional writers, musicians and film-makers. Previously, if you wanted to be a full-time artist, you’d have to hope some wealthy duke would stump up the cash.
Then, as Paul Graham put it, the atmosphere became breathable. The internet happened. More specifically, BitTorrent happened.
You can now make infinite, perfect copies of any piece of music with a few keystrokes. And BitTorrent decentralises the distribution of these copies, so there’s nowhere to attack. (The MPAA and RIAA are playing whack-a-mole with the various file-sharing sites that pop up, but killing the actual filesharing system is as feasible as killing the internet).
I hold that this made the idea of copyright obsolete. Stealing music is no longer stealing. Before you dismiss me as yet another copyleft-advocating freetard (I hate them too), let me explain myself.
Let’s try a thought experiment. Let’s say that BitTorrent, or something like it, was invented before the phonograph. Civilisation passed straight from live music only to ubiquitous copying without ever passing through the age of controllable mass reproduction.
That is, every time some wandering minstrel composed a new melody on their lute, the entire world would be able to listen to it again whenever they wanted. Would people still describe that as “stealing music?”
I think they wouldn’t. In fact, the whole concept sounds pretty awesome, doesn’t it?
I think if we’d never passed through the copyright age we’d rightfully see BitTorrent as one of the greatest advances in history. All of human culture available for free! The only downside — and it is a big downside — is that it’s cut off the main income stream for all the people who actually produce this culture.
I can see two ways the current copyright situation will pan out for the artists: two business models that will work.
First, there’s two models I don’t think will work, long-term. Free-stuff-as-a-marketing-tool (give away albums, sell t-shirts) works now, but will become much more difficult when everyone does it. Product placement won’t go away, but it won’t be able to support culture on its own — and not everyone wants to sell out. The trouble with both these models is that they imply content is not valuable in itself, but only as a means to advertise something else.
The first viable business model is the convenience model, represented by iTunes in music, the Kindle in books, and Netflix in movies. BitTorrent is unreliable and full of porn and malware. The other solutions “just work”. People are happy to pay a premium for this ease-of-use.
The downside of this model is that over time, BitTorrent or its equivalents are going to get better and better. You can already store the entire Library of Congress (20TB of text) on a few external hard drives. Some day you’ll be able to do the same with music and movies. (It’ll take decades, maybe, but we’re talking long-term). What’s the value of iTunes in such a world? I think the only long-term future for the convenience model is locking down your computing infrastructure so unrestricted copying is impossible. Apple already does this. I really like my iPad, but the future it represents scares me.
The second viable model is the ransom model, made popular by Kickstarter et al. If I get $10,000, I’ll make a new album. The big question mark is how much money this model could raise — I doubt you’d be able to fund another Avatar solely by donations. That’s probably not a bad thing.
My prediction is that the iTunes/Kindle/Netflix model will slowly rise to pre-eminence over the next 10-20 years. It’ll take some time — for example, the TV content creators are fighting hard, so Netflix is still the underdog in that space. But publishers are starting to realise it’s their only option. It’ll win eventually.
But it’ll be a short-lived victory — eventually falling storage costs and rising bandwidth will make the convenience model obsolete. But it’ll be difficult for the Kickstarter model to disrupt it; by that point, Apple might have a tighter chokehold on computing than Microsoft or IBM could ever dream of.
The big wildcard in this future is China; by that point, it’ll be close to global hyperpower status. And companies there already exist in an environment where IP theft is taken for granted. If you’re looking for the future business models of the content industries, I’d suggest keeping watch on Chinese entrepreneurs.