Digital Rights: Talk Is Cheap But Music Ain't Free

John Fanning takes Steve Jobs out of context in order to promote the concept of artistic piracy, but he doesn't stop there. Did you know our brave soldiers fought and died so that you could download music without paying the people who worked hard to create it for you? That's what John says, and he throws Martin Luther King in for good measure.

When it comes to digital rights, talk is cheap. But free? Butterflies are free. Music isn't - not for those who make it, and ideally not for those who listen to it.

Let's not suggest that the government appropriate the work of musicians. That's not the only way to allow music listeners to "time shift," as John implies.

Instead, why not harness the talents of the tech and music worlds to change the world? Together, these groups can create new platforms and business models for making music and earning a living at it.

Anyone who's ever been involved in making music knows that creating it is costly. Guitarists know that the price of a good-quality guitar has gone through the roof, as investors and retiring baby boomers turn quality vintage instruments into "collectibles." Keyboards are increasingly sophisticated - and expensive - while other instruments are equally costly.

Digital technology gives the home recordist capabilities that were inconceivable when some of us were young, but the price of entry is still high for young musicians. And then there are those intangible qualities - time and talent. The creation of good music requires a spark of brilliance and many hours of hard work. Who'll pay for all that effort?

Unless I'm missing something, John Fanning doesn't seem to think people should be paid for their talent or their work. In fact, he wants the Federal government to step in and force people to give music away for free. What if the technology had existed to do that fifty years ago? Poor people would have been locked out of the music world. Elvis would have kept driving a truck and James Brown might have continued shining shoes on Beale Street.

"Steve Jobs is right," Fanning writes. "Music should be free. All sound recordings should be free." Actually, that's not exactly what Jobs" said. What Jobs actually wrote was that most of the music being sold today is still on CDs, without DRM copy protection, and that he's willing to sell music through iTunes without DRM if the record companies agree.

They probably won't. As I've written before, today's record companies are dinosaurs. They're part of the problem, not the solution. But the logical response is not to run around saying silly things like "music should be free."

I've long believed that illegal downloading became huge because music companies were absurdly slow to adopt new technology - technology that even now could create a flourishing industry that's far more imaginative and interactive that what Napster or today's iTunes interfaces offer us. That's why I"ve criticized the music industry before, and will again.

That doesn't make it right to steal, or to unilaterally decide you have a "right" to someone else's work. It doesn't even necessarily make DRM a bad thing. The way it's been implemented so far, with multiple DRM tools and competing platforms, is a mess. That doesn't make the notion of paying for music evil.

What is broken is the music industry overall. Its relationship with new technology is just a symptom of a factory-driven record industry that has stopped paying much attention to its "vendors" - people who create music - or to its audience.

IThe problem extends to low-tech as well as high-tech. Every time I struggle to open a new CD I consider it a gesture of contempt from the music business. What would it cost to make them easier to open, like cigarette packs? The RIAA has been a symptom of this malaise, but it doesn't have to remain one.

Here's a suggestion for the RIAA: Why not create a think tank to generate new business opportunities through technology, instead of adopting an obstructionist posture?

Steve Jobs is suggesting we drop DRM, but as far as I can tell he's not against musicians making money. Here's a suggestion for Steve, who has proven to be both a visionary and a great salesman on more than one occasion: Be the pioneer. Revolutionize the industry around a few simple principles: More income for the musician and the innovator, less for the dinosaurs. A fair price for music. Ease of access to the music you purchase and convenient timeshifting, while taking whatever steps are reasonable to protect the work product.

The current iTunes business model depends on a working relationship between Apple and the record companies that allows Steve Jobs to keep licensing their music. That needn't prevent Apple from working directly with some musician-owned companies and other small, entrepreneurial organizations that know how to use the Internet the right way.

The music industry needs a revolution -- in its business model, its technology, and its anthropology. We need a truly free market, where entrepreneurs and visionary music makers once again have a shot at creating something new. Who knows? Maybe they'll even find that new sound that can change society.

Maybe someone could even create a venture capital fund to incubate new music businesses that make better use of new technology. Apple could take the lead in distributing the music created by these new ventures. The companies represented by the RIAA could either choose to evolve or face extinction. And Steve Jobs would be a hero.

Music should be freely accessible, but those who create it should be paid. That way, everybody wins.

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