The copyright situation internationally is broken. Thoroughly and irrevocably. A great may of those involved in it will deny it, of course, and even some of the creative people – those who benefit from it – will tell you that there’s nothing much wrong – the cheques keep on coming.
And, I suppose, if you’re Paul McCartney or JK Rowling, you probably won’t have noticed much difference, but there are a great many more individuals out there who are finding that ‘free’ has tended to evolve into ‘free for all’, and we are in the middle of an enormous paradigm shift, for want of a better expression.
The various branches of popular culture are facing different, if related, issues, of course, and I have heard it said that literature (or words on paper of any kind) is the least affected, but I don’t think it’s as clear cut as that – just think about how we receive news nowadays.
Music is the most clearly defined situation, and for all that labels, artists and most of the media keep trying to find new and inventive ways to bolt the stable door, the horse has long since disappeared over the horizon, and we live in a world where downloading something for free is not considered even morally ambiguous, never mind anything worse. I have had this conversation, or a variant of it, several times with people whose computer I have been asked to tend to after their ‘free’ torrent downloading software has injected their beloved Dell with some kind of evil moneymaking scamware:
Me: The problem is, your Limewire/Azureus/BitTorrent/WhateverTorrent client. When you download stuff this way, you need to be really, really sure you know what you’re getting
Customer: Oh, I never think about it. I just like to get my music that way.
Me: For free, you mean? Well, I’d advise you to use iTunes or *insert name of other proprietary software here*
Customer: But they make you pay for it, and I like to get it for free.
Well, I’m sure you do. I have occasionally developed the conversation with reference to how the music is something the artist has, you know, made, like a carpenter or other craftsman, but I usually don’t, because there is a genuine sense that my customers don’t even begin to understand what I’m talking about. It’s available, isn’t it? For free? Why would that happen if it wasn’t OK to just download it? It’s not like you can see or touch the music…
Now, I am no paragon of virtue here. Like, say, 100% or so of people who have ever used the internet, I have downloaded music – for free. I know how, and I know how to do it safely, so as not to infect my computer with anything. But here’s the difference (and I’m not suggesting this is some kind of moral high ground; I’m well aware that it isn’t) – the vast majority (to the point of being almost all) of the music I have downloaded without paying for is music I already owned in one form or another at some time over the past 35-40 years. I do actually have a problem with the fact that I have bought and paid for Moving Pictures on vinyl, tape, and CD over the years, and downloading a digital copy (when I could rip it from my CD copy anyway) seems to me a fair use of something I already own. It’s a little greyer when it’s something I once owned, but sold or otherwise disposed of, but I don’t think my position is unreasonable.
And here’s the key, for me – I passionately believe that the creator of a work of art has the right to earn money (until we come up with a better system) from it. I also create things, and I’d like to think that I could actually sell my words to those who want to read them. We don’t have the right to simply take what we want, whether that is a 30-year old piece of music, or the latest movie.
But something has to change. I regularly watch TV from both the UK and North America. I rarely watch it at the time it is broadcast, and in many cases, I download it, because I do not have a legal method of seeing it otherwise. And there’s a distinction there, which is clear to me, at least – it’s not that I choose to download stuff which I could otherwise get by paying for it: there is no legal way, paid or otherwise, for me to watch this – I am a market for a product, but I am prevented from consuming that product. Here’s my case in point: I enjoy watching Match of the Day on a Saturday evening, and the fact that I no longer live within 8 time zones of where it is produced doesn’t stop me from that enjoyment. I understand that what I do to see it is not legal; I don’t pay the BBC for their content, and there are rights issues with the sport itself, which has all kinds of complex agreements with Canadian broadcasters to show games for money over here. But there’s a convenience factor, and a comfort factor, and the fact that it is so easy – I literally do nothing to ensure that the programme arrives here during Saturday, and just plug my iPad into the TV when I want to watch – means that I don’t even think about the implications of what I’m doing.
There’s a point here. Something has to change, and I discovered quite by chance this morning that the something may be in the hands of us creative types, rather than the intermediaries who are actually coming between the product and its audience now.
Before this morning, I was only vaguely aware of Louis C.K. In my mind, I rather suspect, I had confused him with Andrew WK, who – it turns out – is someone else entirely. Loius C.K. is a stand-up, and (I now discover), rather a good one. He also has clearly seen the copyright issue for himself, and appears to have devised a simple and brilliant way around it. His latest video record of his act (it’s not a DVD, as we shall see), is only available from one source – the artist himself. He charges you $5 to buy it (in comparison, his previous show, Shameless, is available from Amazon.ca for $21). This morning, he tweeted that, to his surprise, the Thing (as he calls it) has grossed $1 million.
Yes, you read that right. One Million Dollars. For a quality product in an intangible form (the website has details of how to burn and package it so it looks like a ‘proper’ DVD, if that’s what you want). Now, think about that for a minute. This is downloadable product, and I’m sure that with only a few minutes work, I could find it available for free. But I’d rather pay the artist himself $5 for it, and so, it seems, would 200,000 other people. And the beauty of the download? It’s not restricted in any way by being a ‘regional disk’ or any of the myriad other ways corporations like to insert themselves between a product and its audience.
And, as you can tell, it got me thinking. The right product (it has to be something people want), at the right price, delivered more or less instantly to you, in a high quality format with no middlemen skimming their percentage? Would work with books just as well, wouldn’t it? If the product’s good enough (that bit’s down to me), and well enough packaged (not hard, these days), a writer could sell his book directly to his audience…
And a musician could sell his or her music, and even (with a bit of creativity), a film maker could get the film directly to the people who really want to see it without subjecting themselves to the modern torture chamber that is, notwithstanding the Code of Conduct, the modern cinema-going experience. I’d pay for that; wouldn’t you?
PS: 8 seconds. That’s how long it took me to find it for free. Still gonna pay for it, though.