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The copyright industry arms race

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Friday, Jun 13, 2008

At Cato Unbound (an internet publication of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank), Rasmus Fleischer presents what seems to me some irrefutable facts about the troubled future for intellectual property rights in this essay and presents libertarianism in what seems to me to be its most favorable light—arguing against the consolidation of state and corporate power in favor of the creative use of technology by individuals. The sort of freedom to which the internet accustoms us—of access and association—seems to mesh well with libertarian concerns. A platform built not on gun love, tax hatred, and Ayn Randian überselfishness, but rather on a commitment to an agnostic internet, protecting individuals’ ability to use technology (the means of production in the information age), and enabling spontaneous organizations to meet needs as they emerge seems to have great potential appeal to a new generation of voters who think in terms of always being online, and always networking at several levels of intimacy at once with a variety of privacy needs to protect.


Anyway, detailing the technological arms race between the copyright industries and pirates, Fleischer foresees “an escalation of technology regulations running out of control and ruining civil liberties” as governments try to control the use and distribution of digital content. “Every broken regulation brings a cry for at least one new regulation even more sweepingly worded than the last.” The culture industries want to preserve economic advantage by maintaining an artificial scarcity of their goods enforced by the intervening power of the state. But as Fleischer points out,


We already have access to more film, music, text and images than we can possibly incorporate into our lives. Retreating from this paradigm of abundance to the old paradigm of scarcity is simply not an alternative. Adding more “content” will strictly speaking produce no value — whether culturally or economically. What’s valuable is supplying a context where people can come together to create meaning out of abundance.


No matter how draconian efforts to protect content on the internet become, no matter how onerous the burden placed on ISPs to regulate users’ activity, they are futile in the face of the “sneakernet”—the ability of someone to walk over to your place with, say, a hard drive containing all the recorded music from a decade.


Within 10-15 years a cheap pocket-size media player will probably be able to store all recorded music that has ever been released — ready for direct copying to another person’s device.
In other words: The sneakernet will come back if needed. “I believe this is a ‘wild card’ that most people in the music industry are not seeing at all,” writes Swedish filesharing researcher Daniel Johansson. “When music fans can say, ‘I have all the music from 1950-2010, do you want a copy?’ — what kind of business models will be viable in such a reality?”


It seems to me the model is to figure out a way to sell the limitations the copyright industries are trying to impose by fiat. When confronted with overwhelming options, people need them edited down. The personal entertainment budget was once the filter, but that is rapidly becoming negligible. Fleischman’s conclusion, though, is apt:


Creative practices, with some exceptions, thrive in economies where digital abundance is connected to scarce qualities in space and time. But there can never be a question of finding one universal business model for a world without copyright. The more urgent question regards what price we will have to pay for upholding the phantasm of universal copyright.


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