Increasingly, the products of artists are digital; thus subject to essentially-free copying and sharing. Artists, just like accountants and ambassadors, need to get paid. How best to arrange this? (Provoked by a long talk with Cory Doctorow at ApacheCon; my thanks to him, but the fallacies are my own.)

Conventional Stupidity · I speak of the whole toxic tornado of DRM and copyright-everything-for-ever and mindless anti-customer litigation. The established media businesses, under the leadership of the MPAA and the RIAA, with the aid of their bought-and-paid-for legislators, are furiously engaged in trying to repeal the future.

It can’t work. What can work?

What’s True · I hold the following to be true:

  • Pretending that copying is just like thieving is muddy thinking, and unsupported by the evidence.

  • Giving people an encoded digital object, plus the tools to decode it, then relying on technology to enforce what they can do with it, is very bad engineering.

  • Suing your customers in large numbers is self-destructive.

  • Extending copyright a century past the end of the creator’s life is bad policy and bad macroeconomics.

It can’t work. What can work?

What “Trusted” Means · The word is part of the name of the Trusted Computing Group; their goal is to equip everyone’s desktop computer with tamper-proof hardware so that software can be really sure that which computer it’s running on, and that the code that it’s running hasn’t been tampered with, and so on.

There is a widespread perception that the reason the TCG exists is to create the infrastructure for really strong DRM, so that Apple, for example, can make really really sure that only their software talks to your iPod and it never ever downloads any music you didn’t buy from them. Blecch.

For a long time on the TCG site, DRM was the elephant in the room that nobody talked of; but I observe that in their Mobile Working Group’s recent Use Cases document, they talk about how a “Robust DRM Implementation” would benefit users because it would “enable valuable content to be distributed to mobile Devices with the permission of Content Providers.” Gosh, I have lots of valuable content from Content Providers on my mobile computer, which I acquired by the means of paying for it on compact disks and DVDs. Why do we need a new approach?

The EFF isn’t convinced, and I’m not either; also see Bruce Schneier’s take. I do note that the TCG’s Best Practices policy document has all sorts of comforting language about users’ rights; I wonder how seriously the vendors driving the TCG take them?

Anyhow, I’m quite confident that the TCG technology will quickly be hacked around, just like every previous attempt to sell you a locked box and the key and then control what you do with what’s inside.

It can’t work. What can work?

The Politics · My talk with Cory did little to alleviate my gloom about prospects for legislative or judicial progress. The fact of the matter is that legislators are feeling pressure from major past (and potentially future) financial supporters to create a particular legal infrastructure, and are not (as of yet) feeling much pushback from their constituents.

The stories of people who’ve run into DRM brick walls are starting to be heard: David Berlind, Phil Windley, (both found in ZDNet’s useful Digital Restrictions Management category), Norm Walsh; geeks all, but also canaries in this coal-mine.

Campaign contributors carry a big stick, but a generally-irritated populace carries a bigger one. At some point, a pro-DRM politician may become unelectable. But that point, if it ever comes, is not in the near-term. Still...

It can’t work. What can work?

What Might Work · I think that if we value sanity and democracy and freedom (as in a free market dammit), we have to keep whacking away at this whole tangle of corrupt legislators and misconceived technologies and submarine patents, because we’re right and they’re wrong. But I suspect that the way forward, the way to arrange that artists make art and get paid for it, is off in completely another direction: the direction of disintermediation, of people buying art from artists, and paying them for it. No, not the record company, nor the Hollywood studio, but the artist.

It works something like this: you cut a business deal with an artist you like, where you pay them a fairly small amount of money and they provide you with their output, you promise not to give it away to everyone and they don’t try to micromanage what you do with what you bought.

I can think of a bunch of different business structures, here are a few:

  • Pure subscription: I pay a monthly fee and get something on a regular basis from the artist.

  • Affinity club: kind of like a frequent-flyer program, I sign up, buy stuff, and am rewarded with freebies and extras.

  • Old-fashioned retail: I buy silver disks, but the artist made them and sold them to me without another company getting in the way.

I already have relationships of these kinds with Patricia Barber, Maria Schneider, Sock Hop Arousal, and I’d like to have more. Lots of artists are starting to look in this direction, and then there are efforts like Magnatune, who are trying to do something very innovative and pure.

I’m sure there are other models. I’m really sure there is a lot of money to be made, for the artists, for the production people, and for the “find new talent and get the word out” function.

Won’t It Get Stolen? · Well, yeah. But not by honest people who can afford to pay, which is most of them. If you’re selling anything, there are three kinds of people out there: those who will buy from you, those who might buy from you, and those who will never buy from you. It’s not cost-effective to try to shut down the third group, and there’s a word for unpaid use by the second group: “marketing”.

I’m not sure, but I’m optimistic, that once we explore these models a little more, and people notice that they can buy music or film or pictures without DRM and industry lawyers getting in their face, and that they’re paying less, and that more of the money is going to the artist, and the artists notice they don’t have to deal with intermediaries and they can make real money, well, I’m optimistic that it might catch on.

The Back Catalogue · I’m not optimistic, though, that today’s media empires are going away any time soon. Just like Microsoft Office’s biggest competitor is the installed base of previous versions, a hot new rock band’s biggest competition isn’t other hot new rock bands, it’s AC/DC, Blondie, the Clash, and so on through Yes and ZZ Top. Same for films, pictures, for all of art in fact. And most of that back catalog is firmly in the grip of the industry incumbents who want to strip-mine the past while repealing the future. Could be ugly for a long time.

In the meantime, buy CDs and DVDs, they’re a good deal.


author · Dad · software · colophon · rights
picture of the day
December 29, 2005
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