Digital Rights Progress in the So-called Internet-Speed Era

January 1st, 2009

I just watched this video of Lawrence Lessig’s talk in 2007 at the TED Conference (thanks LA). It gives a brief history of copyright and recorded media, going back to John Philip Sousa’s vehement opposition to the very first audio recordings for fear that they would cause people to stop playing music and singing on the porch at night, and eventually lose their vocal cords entirely  (!).

The thing that really grabbed me was a fight between ASCAP and upstart copyright clearinghouse BMI in 1939.  ASCAP have the “top shelf” artists and recordings locked up, but was so afraid of radio that it kept raising royalty rates beyond what any broadcasters were willing to pay.  BMI had second-tier content, but its pricing was better so it got its music on the radio and forced ASCAP in 1941 to cave in to the new radio-driven marketplace realities.

Contrast this with the RIAA today.  They have been fighting online distribution of music for 10 years now (the Napster case was decided in 2001) and the battle shows no sign of ending soon.

The issues are different and more complex these days for sure (where *exactly* is the line between fair-use mashups and flat-out copying songs without paying for them?),  but still- it’s gone on far enough.

One of Lessig’s best points is that the battle has created two extreme polar mindsets: the “sue ’em all” studios on one side and the “all music should be free” zealots on the other.  Let’s just agree now that digital music is going to cost less than it did on CD, most people will still pay something for it and a few will persistently refuse.  Then we can all focus on finding new and interesting ways to increase the ratio of buyers to non-buyers instead of harassing bands’ biggest fans.

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