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Here are two articles that expressly discuss pirated music, but a lot of the same issues of morality and artist compensation apply to any pirated media—movies, games, and, yes, e-books. They make an interesting presentation of two sides of the piracy argument: what can be done to get artists paid for their music?

On one side is 21-year-old NPR All Songs Considered intern Emily White, who penned a piece at the NPR website discussing how she’d accumulated her 11,000 song music collection largely by copying CDs from the radio station she ran, mix tapes from friends, and so on. She writes:

As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to realize the gravity of what file-sharing means to the musicians I love. I can’t support them with concert tickets and T-shirts alone. But I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience.

And adds that she would be willing to pay a subscription fee for a Spotify-style universal database of music to which she could listen at any time, anywhere, with play-count-based compensation so artists played more got paid more.

Then on the other side is 51-year-old music industry veteran, teacher, and trained mathematician David C. Lowery, formerly of music acts Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker. Lowery responds with an open letter several times longer than White’s piece, in which he discusses the ethical issues inherent in the younger generation’s approach to acquiring music.

Lowery writes that the oft-cited “record labels screw the artists anyway” defense is not actually true, and the majority of artists have fair and equitable deals with their recording studios (or even own their own independent labels themselves). He also writes that more and more artists are finding themselves unable to make a living, and cites the cases of a couple artists he knew who committed suicide in abject poverty.

Now, having said all that, I also deeply empathize with your generation. You have grown up in a time when technological and commercial interests are attempting to change our principles and morality. Rather than using our morality and principles to guide us through technological change, there are those asking us to change our morality and principles to fit the technological change–if a machine can do something, it ought to be done. Although it is the premise of every “machines gone wild” story since Jules Verne or Fritz Lang, this is exactly backwards. Sadly, I see the effects of this thinking with many of my students.

He goes on to accuse the Free Culture movement (and specifically, via a financial document link, the Creative Commons Foundation) of being effectively an astroturf cat’s paw of “a handful of large tech corporations and their foundations” who want to earn money through enabling the illicit distribution of content.

Who are these companies? They are sites like The Pirate Bay, or Kim Dotcom and Megaupload. They are “legitimate” companies like Google that serve ads to these sites through AdChoices and Doubleclick. They are companies like Grooveshark that operate streaming sites without permission from artists and over the objections of the artist, much less payment of royalties lawfully set by the artist. They are the venture capitalists that raise money for these sites. They are the hardware makers that sell racks of servers to these companies. And so on and  so on.

I’m sure that’s news to Lawrence Lessig and the other people who simply feel artists should have the ability to forego specific copyright protections on their own works, and an easy way to codify exactly which protections they wish to forego. And speaking of free culture in general, I expect such claims would also surprise Richard Stallman, rabid free-IP advocate who is about as anti-corporation as you can get.

Lowery also compares prices for the computer equipment and services necessary to download songs cost, or the cost of tuition, or car insurance, and compares these to the $2,139.50 value he placed on the 11,000 songs White copied. “Why do you pay real money for this other stuff but not music?”

In paying big corporations for network services and computer equipment, but not paying for the songs they consume, Lowery writes:

Congratulations, your generation is the first generation in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo freak musicians!

And Lowery also addresses White’s statement I quoted above, about saying she’ll pay for “convenience” but not albums,, by asking what’s so inconvenient about iTunes, or services like iTunes Match or Pandora Premium, apart from having to pay for them. He closes by suggesting that people should seek out pirated music by their favorite artists and complain to the pirate sites’ advertisers. He also suggests that Ms. White should donate some money to charities in support of music artists and their causes in lieu of paying back the artists of those 11,000 songs she copied.

Lowery makes some convincing arguments in his letter—especially when it comes to the convenience of iTunes and other such services. I’m in the process of uploading my own music library to Amazon’s cloud storage right now, and I don’t see any problem paying $20 a year for the ability to stream my own music. But Lowery’s presentation is marred by some of his other claims. This is certainly the first time I’ve ever seen it suggested that the Free Culture harbors a secret corporate agenda! This whole “conspiracy theory” thing makes it a little hard to take him seriously.

I’m also kind of wondering what possessed Emily White to be so forthright about her method of music acquisition. It made for an interesting article, but I tend to agree with Lowery that her attitude is probably going to make it harder for her to find a job in the music industry. “Oh, you’re the one who wrote that article on NPR saying you pirated 11,000 songs?”

As I said at the top, the essential arguments also apply to other pirated media, though perhaps a little less so to e-books. It’s not quite as easy to “rip” some else’s paper books, after all, and the convenience of buying them online rather than trying to hunt down pirated versions makes paying for them a lot more attractive. Still, there’s a lot of the same sort of entitlement going on across all digital media, with people feeling justified in downloading illicitly because they can.

In the face of that, I don’t know how realistic Lowery’s “Stop that right now, you naughty children” approach is. Maybe it will change a few minds, but as addicted as today’s youth is to illicit content, it’ll take a lot more than telling people don’t do that to turn the tide. It may not even be a matter of refusing to “change our morality and principles to fit the technological change” anymore—that ship may already have sailed, as it looks like the morality and principles of a whole generation are pretty much set and hardened.

A lot of people scoff at the idea that, “If this keeps up, someday there won’t be any artists left.” Many artists (such as the authors of the fanfic and Internet fiction I mentioned earlier today) work for reasons other than money to begin with. But if this does keep up, the number of artists who can work for pay will definitely decline, and the quality and type of art and literature we see may shift dramatically. I wonder what the world will look like if that happens?

My suspicion is that people will come up with payment models that work in the new Internet era. Perhaps it will be the artists themselves who do it, given that they’re the ones with the biggest incentive to see that artists get paid, and necessity is the mother of invention. A lot of Kickstarter projects have been rather successful in that regard lately; Seth Godin has already tallied more than many published authors make on several books in donations on his Kickstarter, with still most of a month to gather even more momentum. Maybe it will be that, or maybe it will be something else. But if there’s a vacuum in the market, where people who do have money are willing to pay for art, the market will probably figure out how to connect them to artists in a meaningful way.

Update: Mike Masnick on Techdirt says much the same thing as I did above, accusing Lowery of “want[ing] a pony” that he won’t be able to have, and saying that even the file sharing Lowery decries is on its way out, replaced by free or paid streaming services like Pandora or Spotify (which recently released a free service to compete with Pandora, by the way). As for Lowery’s claim that streaming services offer low payouts, Masnick calls it a “mirage” and points to a post from the TuneCore blog that runs the numbers and estimates streaming could have brought in over $50 billion in 2011. “The innovator’s dilemma teaches us that the old guard always mocks the new players for being too small or not paying enough,” Masnick writes. “But they miss the trendlines for the snapshot. And when the trendlines converge, they get run over. “

 
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