The size of the American music industry has shrunk with about eight billion dollars since 1999. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) the music industry is losing $12.5 billion every year because of piracy. You don’t have to have a degree in economics to realise that something isn’t working. But while the music industry is blaming the pirates and freedom of information activists are blaming copyright, we’re forgetting the real problem.
During the last twenty years most information-based industries have gone through monumental change. We have invented computers, we’re connected and we can share information easily. The new found freedom of uploading a file to a server and then sharing it with your friends isn’t going to go away. It’s going to become easier. And for the digital generation who’s grown up in a post-Napster world, it’s a fundamental right to be able to get hold of the music or movies they want, when they want.
What do you do if a song suddenly pops into your mind and you really want to listen to it? If you’re sitting in front of a computer chances are you’ll browse your way to Youtube and find a video. Unless it’s Lady Gaga’s or Justin Beiber’s latest track, you’re probably listening to an illegal version of the song and no money will be heading towards the artist or record label. This is just a small example of how we’ve all become used to free information at the click of a button.
The music industry has spent a lot of time and money on preventing this change from happening. According to the blog Techdirt, The RIAA spent about $64 million on lawsuits between 2006 and 2008. Guess how much they got back in settlements? $1,4 million. Seems like not even suing people for piracy is working.
The problem is simple. Even though it doesn’t always seem so. We used to live in a world where artists were always paid for their creations and the labels got a cut (or rather the artists got a cut from the label). The system was almost fail-safe, people had to buy records and they did. Now that business model has collapsed.
Then things become a bit more complicated and we start talking about copyright.
Copyright exists so an artist can claim ownership of their work. It’s used by song-writers, authors and artists. It’s not used by fashion designers, car-manufacturers or chefs. For these industries copying isn’t a problem. In the world of fashion it creates trends. High Street retailers can sell designer rip-offs to a different demographic. The original designs get more visibility. Everyone wins.
Naturally most of us would argue that the same wouldn’t work for music, but why are we so sure? We haven’t tried have we?
Copyright seems to be integral to the music industry’s fight for survival. Maybe that’s why The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers started collecting donations for a campaign against Creative Commons, a license that has already been used by artists like Nine Inch Nails, The Beastie Boys and Radiohead.
There seem to be a bit of confusion about the costs of piracy and the future of copyright. Perhaps because of the witch hunt of pirates, some people have started to believe that the way copyright is used for monetary gain is evil.
But the problem is still simple. If we want a world with artists, they will have to be able to earn a living from their work. Until now copyrighting has guaranteed songwriters and musicians an income. Now it looks like they might have to find new ways of monetising their product.
Creative Commons endorser and author Cory Doctorow argues that “there is only one regulation that would provide everyone who wants to be an artist with a middle-class income. It’s a very simple rule: ‘If you call yourself an artist, the government will pay you £40,000 a year until you stop calling yourself an artist’ … Certainly, no copyright system can attain this.”
Are there any answers? There will be a time to have a semantic discussion about copyright. Maybe that time is now, but more importantly we should try to find new ways for artists to earn a living. Not from just being the owners of their work, but from letting people engage with it.