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All the hubbub with music and who owns it?

I have very little knowledge of the law, especially the one concerning Intellectual Property (IP) or copyright issues. I am also near ignorant of the workings of the music or recording industry. I am just a consumer.

Adrian Carter in his piece, “Whose Music Is It Anyway?” look at the two models of online music distribution; one from Apple and the other, from Apple’s ‘competitors’. Apple sells singles or albums through their iTunes Music Store of which you can get songs for $0.99 and albums from $9.99 to up to $19.99, as far as I know. The other way to get music is through what they call subscription model, where for a monthly fee you can download all the music that you want. But once you stop paying the monthly fee, all the music that you have downloaded are gone. In a way, you are just borrowing the song. Comparing the two, iTMS is like a bookstore where you can choose from a huge selection, buy the book and get to own it and keep it, while the other companies is just like a library where you only are borrowing the book and when it gets past your due, you are fined. In this case, the book deletes itself.

The idea of downloading all the songs that you want is very enticing. But the idea of losing those songs when you can’t pay anymore doesn’t sit well with me. I prefer to own the things that I spent on. I don’t like the idea of ‘borrowing’ things. There’s no permanence to it.

Of course, there are some issues regarding getting songs from iTMS. What if the computer that you downloaded your songs in is stolen or gets damaged in some way wherein all your data are lost? Will you be able to re-download all the songs the you previously had? After all, you paid for them before. Apple says, “No, you can’t.” It has something to do with licensing. That’s a bit unfair, don’t you think? Perhaps. But think of it this way, if you have a CD collection and that collection gets either stolen or is damaged in a fire, do you expect the record labels to send you a whole new batch to replace those that you lost? I don’t think so. In a way, this is what iTMS is all about. Its like buying a CD off a music store sans the CD and the CD case, and the paper that goes along with it. Apple does, after all, suggest that you keep a backup of the songs that you downloaded to a CD or DVD.

Another problem with getting music from iTMS is that all their songs are encoded in 128 kbps bitrate. Some music purists or audiophiles are howling that this bitrate is too low, that the quality is not good enough. Perhaps not for them, but for those who downloaded from iTMS it seems good enough. Good enough to reach 600 million downloads to date. So for those who wants higher bitrates, all they have to do is buy a CD and rip it to 192 and up.

The Evolution of Online Distribution
Tim O’Reilly (yes, THE Tim O’Reilly) wrote a piece entitled “Piracy is Progressive Taxation, and Other Thoughts on the Evolution of Online Distribution” way back in 2002, and the piece harkens the difficulty faced by online distribution of works by people in print, audio, and video. O’Reilly’s experience is with the printed word, on paper or in electronic form, but what he says about the media he works in rings true for both audio and video. He makes several points: one, piracy is not the greatest threat a writer (or an artist or musician) faces, but rather obscurity. With thousands of media being churned out every year, chances are works of some lesser known, but very talented, people are never read, heard, or seen by others.

Two, piracy is a progressive taxation. By definition, progressive taxation is “a tax that is larger as a percentage of income for those with larger incomes.” In this instance, O’Reilly says piracy benefits the creative, and again, lesser known artists, and actually does less harm to the more known individuals. How does this work? P2P offers people a way to sample music they haven’t had much time to listen to on radio or whatever ‘popular’ media distribution that are ruled by big networks and conglomerates. And contrary to what these bigwigs say, most people who gets music from P2P networks actually buy the CDs of the artists they like listening to.

Three, consumers will do the right thing if given the chance. The big corporations are cynical and thinks that their customers are all thieves and will steal every chance they get. But Apple’s iTMS proves that if given the choice, people will get stuff legally, at a fair price. This is where the fight between Jobs and record labels revolve around: the pricing of the songs in iTMS. Record labels insists that a fixed pricing scheme is bad for business, they it is not a sound business strategy. But Steve Jobs countered by calling them greedy. Jobs knows that $0.99 is the sweet spot (as with the 1,000 songs sweet spot of the iPod mini). Record labels explain that not all songs are created equal; that a current hit should cost more than an 80’s song. I can see the logic behind that but why not lower the price on the 80’s song? Can’t they even lower the prices considering the expenses that goes with getting a CD out is virtually eliminated? I just can’t help but agree with Jobs on this one. The labels are just greedy, and are refusing to change because they fear losing control of their empire to Jobs.

Four, piracy is not as big as a problem as compared to shoplifting. O’Reilly recalls that many times he went into a bookstore and asked why isn’t there a copy of the book on the shelf. But the person behind the counter would insists that there is because the computer says so. Were they dumb enough not to realize that the book has just been shoplifted? In a way, shoplifting affects not only the bookstore, but the author as well, since a bookstore will not re-order the book because the computer tells them that there are still more on the shelves when as a matter of fact, it was shoplifted a long time ago.

(I didn’t realize that this article is really long. There are 7 lessons of which I will tackle the last three next time. Still, O’reilly’s essay or article rings true on 2002 and still rings true today. Piracy is not being propagated by people. It is the big corporations that are feeding the monster with their cynical attitude and disdain towards their consumers. Perhaps it is the fear of losing the power they think that they have, unbeknowst to them, that power is slowly transferring to the consumers, and that’s where it should be in the first place.

I got to read O’Reilly’s piece thanks to an article by Graeme Philipson. On “Tim O’Reilly fires a broadside against ‘piracy’, Philipson talks a bit about the article and then goes into the current issue of publishers going against Google’s plans to digitse the contents of some books of which they call it as a breach of copright. Philipson calls it as a “stupid reaction” from the publishers and writers. The reason why O’Reilly’s 2002 article was mentioned, is that even though the piece was written 3 years ago, it is an appropriate response to the idiocy that some writers and publishers have shown today.

‘Nuff sed. Til next time.)

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