New technologies, mainly file sharing and the World Wide Web, shook up the way that knowledge workers are rewarded, but it is attitudes to property as such that are shifting the balance between producers and consumers.
Frances Moore of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry reports that 95 per cent of all music downloads are illegal. Industry claims are questioned. Google lawyer William Patry says talk of ‘piracy’ and ‘theft’ are a moral panic by an industry that wants to scare legislators into guaranteeing their overpricing.
The industry’s aggressive defence of its intellectual property rights, with the prosecution of tens of thousands of downloaders (3500 in America, according to Patry, Moral Panics and the copyright Wars, Oxford University Press, 2009, p 135; More than ten thousand in Europe by 2006 according to Lawrence Lessig, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, Bloomsbury, 2008, p 39) across America and Europe has shocked some. American legal academic Lawrence Lessig says pointedly that it ought to be possible to reward artists without ‘criminalizing our kids’. In 2009 Sweden’s new Pirate Party won seats in the European parliament on a platform of phasing out copyright altogether.
So far legislators have been going the other way, with copyright extended from fifty to seventy years after death under the 1998 Sonny Bono Act in the US and the European Directive (2001/29/EC). Right now, though, the British government’s review into intellectual property under Ian Hargreaves is asking the question whether current rules stand in the way of innovation. And while the industry prosecutes, it has also tried to accommodate expectations, with legal downloading (with iTunes and Amazon, for example) and much reduced costs. That strategy boosted sales from 2003 to 2009, but now they are slowing again.
It often looks as if it is the technology itself that has made widescale theft of music possible. But copyright lawyer Ronald Rosen explains that users who copy music just do not think of their actions as theft – their experiences tell them that copying is normal. Social scientists have recorded a slow decline (also Social Trends 1994, Office of National Statistics London: HMSO) in respect for established institutions, including parliaments, judges, professionals and, significantly, corporations. Younger people just do not respect the intellectual property rights that seem so important to the industry.
Two strategies for dealing with downloading are taken – confrontation or adaptation – but both have problems. Confrontation provokes ridicule, but so in their own way do the Lessig/Patry attempts to meet the downloaders half way. They have a point when they say that the model might well look more like commercial radio, with content paid for by advertising. Still, theirs is a pragmatic adaptation that only reinforces the view that ‘information wants to be free’. David Byrne makes a good point when he puts the focus back on the quality of the big labels’ output as the other reason why people were so unwilling to pay for overpriced CDs. Better work guarantees rewards, and people are more likely to be willing to pay for what is new and good than to keep genuflecting to EMI’s ‘long tail’.
James Heartfield writes and lectures on creativity and regeneration. He lives in North London