Monday, July 05, 2010

Duel of the Copyrights.

Today, I read this very interesting blog post which is essentially an email conversation between the composer Jason Robert Brown and a teen girl on the internet who was sharing/pirating some of his sheet music. After reading, I just had to throw in my two cents.

Personally, I can see both sides of the argument. Eleanor starts out with the classic argument: "I can't afford his music. If I didn't pirate it, I wouldn't buy it anyway so there is no net loss to the composer and by downloading and playing this sheet music at a talent show, I make more people aware of the work which results in people buying his sheet music, CD's and going to his shows."

To be honest, I can see the logic in that, but Eleanor's argument has he one hallmark I can't stand. Summed up in a couple of her messages:

"In order to download something online legally, a credit card is required and I do not have one of those. As I just said, my parents don't support my theatre and wouldn't give me said necessary credit card. Therefore, I cannot buy it."

This is the first thing I don't like. She can't afford the music or doesn't have the means to buy it…which in her eyes gives her the right to steal it. I found her use of the fact she doesn't have a credit card as a defense to be particularly stupid. If I go to Target without any cash, it doesn't mean I can just take what I want because they won't accept a check. The next message jus about made my brain explode:

"Alright, "Mr. Brown" I have a problem and that problem is your fault. I need the sheet music to "I'd Give It All For You" but thanks to your little stunt (Asking people to stop illegally sharing his music), I can't get it. And I cannot just go to the store and buy it. My parents don't support my theatre all that much and they won't buy it for me. And I need it pronto. If you're actually Jason Robert Brown, what can you do to help me with my situation?'

Let me translate this into normal language instead of the language of someone with a misplaced and massive sense of entitlement:

"Alright, "Mr Brown" I have a problem and that problem is your fault. I need the sheet music to "I'd Give It All For You" but thanks to you asking people nicely to please stop stealing all the hard work you use to support yourself and your family, I can't steal it and I really want it. However, I'd much rather spend my four dollars on McDonalds or something, and I refuse to even entertain the concept of not getting everything I want when I want it, or saving, or going without something else. My parents are being unreasonable by not buying me whatever I ask for whenever I want it and I really want your work right now. I have such a massive sense of entitlement that I think you should compensate me for not being able to steal your work. So send me a copy for free."

That is the thing I hate about this whole argument. However you want to sugar-coat it, this girl is stealing this man's work… and she's trying to take the moral high ground… like an inability to buy what you want makes it your moral right to steal it. It's the gall that gets me. This girl wants something and is either unable or unwilling to buy it, but the idea of not getting what she wants hasn't even entered into her head.

Ok, this is where people usually point out that it's not stealing because you're 'just taking a copy'…but technically, the paper the sheet music is printed on (or the CD that music comes on) usually makes up just pennies of the actual purchase cost. The valuable part is the content, not the container...but these people refuse to make the connection between downloading content illegally and just walking out of a music store with a CD or songbook under their jacket.

So, I think it's fairly safe to say that at least this one factor of piracy, the idea that an inability to afford or purchase something makes you morally right to steal it, is bullshit…but part of Brown's argument made me think:

"If your parents really won't pony up the four bucks to buy a copy of the sheet music, then you can ask them to take you to the library and you can take out all the music you want, free, and pick the song you want to use for an audition or a talent show, and you can keep borrowing the book from the library until you're done with it or until the library demands it back. My song may not be in your library – you could ask them to get it from another library, through an interlibrary loan (this is common, standard library practice), but if you're in a time crunch, that's not practical – so you may have to just pick another song… The entire record business is in free-fall because people no longer feel the moral responsibility to buy music; they just download it for free from the Internet, from YouTube, from their friends."

Ok, this is where we hit a bit of an impasse.

While I think we can agree that piracy is morally wrong and that artists should get paid by the people who enjoy their work…I think the actual impact that this sort of piracy has is misunderstood by Brown, and the point about borrowing music from the library proves it.

Basically, Brown is saying that while it's wrong for people to download his music online, he's fine with them borrowing it, for free, from the library. The library only purchased a handful of copies of that music, and Brown sees no more money from the people who check it out. From a purely financial and practical standpoint, there's no difference between downloading the music online or borrowing it from the library.

Of course, you could argue that the difference is 'borrowing' and 'keeping'…but if someone borrows sheet music from a library and wants it enough to keep it, I think the majority of people would simply photocopy it, probably on a photocopier at the library, rather than buy it.

It's something I've thought about with my Xbox Game collection. All my games are legally purchased, genuine copies…but only about three of thirty or so games I bought new. The rest were bought pre-owned meaning the developers of these games have never seen a penny of that money. They sell one copy to the store, which the store then sells, buys back and re-sells over and over.

While there's a huge difference morally, and I'm supporting the actual store, my practical, financial relationship with that game's creator is no different than if I'd downloaded an illegal copy.

So, to put it simply, whether Eleanor borrows the music from the library or downloads from the web, it makes no difference to Brown's bottom line, and the only real difference to Eleanor is whether she gets that music instantly with a mouse click or gets a ride into town, walks to the library, finds the music she needs and checks it out.

From that point of view I can understand Eleanor's stance. If she's getting a copy of the music for free anyway, why go to the hassle of visiting a library?

The only other argument of Brown's that I take exception to is his assertion that 'The entire record business is in free fall'. I'm sorry, but this is simply not true. People are certainly pirating a lot of music, actual music sales are at an all time high.

For example, the 2009 Neilson Report showed that while purchases of CDs, especially full albums, are dropping, overall music sales were up 2.9% over the previous year and music sales exceeded 1.5 billion for the second consecutive year.

The entire record business in freefall? Hardly.

Sure, people are downloading music illegally, but people are also buying music online, or subscribing to services like Rhapsody and 'renting' music. People like the RIAA are pointing to closing record stores as a direct result of piracy, but the 'real' culprit is the changeover from physical to digital media. People simply don't want to have to drive to town, find a record store, buy an album on CD that only has a few songs they like…and then come home and rip the CD so they can listen to it on their iPod…especially when the alternative is to buy that music instantly with a mouse-click.

Basically, on this argument, I'm taking almost the exact middle ground.

Piracy is wrong. It's that simple. If you want the content, you should pay for it…and an inability to pay does not give you the right to steal it, or the moral high ground. My inability to afford a Playstation 3 doesn't give me the right to walk out of Best Buy with one under my arm.

However, I think creators are overestimating the impact of piracy on their business. 1000 illegal downloads doesn't instantly translate to 1000 lost sales…and a young musician playing a song from sheet music she obtained illegally probably will result in a few extra sales of that song.

The simple truth is that we're currently in the middle of a major change that's destroying old business models while creating new ones. Some people will adapt wile others will go down in flames.

My advice to Eleanor is that wanting something doesn't give you a right to it, but I'm sure her attitude will change when she grows up.

My advice to Mr. Brown is that the world is changing and the internet's not going away. Musicians claimed recording technology and radio would be the death of live musicians and the exact opposite happened. Then people claimed Television would be the death of the Cinema and the Radio. The internet is not the end of the record business, as the figures show it's been a boost to music sales.

The simple moral here is adapt or die. Let me make one final point.

Mr. Brown said:

"The way I get paid is that people buy the work that I do, and I get a percentage of that money – other percentages go to the publishers, the bookstores, the theaters, the actors, the typesetters, the copyists, the musicians, the designers, the operators, even the libraries"

Under the theme of 'adapt or die', may I recommend giving your music away for 'free' through an ad supported website? It's my belief that the majority of people want to support artists, but few of those people will support you buy buying something they can get elsewhere for free. However, if you give them an option to get something for free while supporting you…that's the route the vast majority will choose.

The truth is publishers, bookstores etc are middlemen. Pre-internet they were necessary middlemen, but the objective has always been for you to get your work to your fans and get paid for it. An ad supported website kills two birds with one stone. Your fans get your work, you collect the ad revenue and the only expense to you, thanks to the lack of middlemen, is nominal hosting costs.

Brown also said: "When I make a cast album or a CD of my own, I do it knowing that it will never earn its money back, that I'm essentially throwing that money away so that I can put those songs out in the world"

Why? Why are you making CD's anyway? Make your ad-supported site and offer that album or CD as a digital download. You don't need a publisher to press thousands of discs, get shelf space in the store, pay for marketing…Make your recording and put it for sale on your site. As well as free sheet music driving a lot of traffic to your site, giving it away free buys a lot of good will. People may not be willing to spend four dollars for sheet music, but buying an album from the artist who's given them a ton of free sheet music?

Adapt or Die. Simple as that.

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