Monday, April 7, 2008

Power To The Subscriber !

A few things have come to my attention recently. Beginning with the introduction of a new Bill that would require commercial radio to pay royalties to artists (similar to the way songwriters are paid performance royalties by ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC), there could be big changes on the horizon. Ultimately this is a fair proposition-- Satellite radio and Streaming Internet stations already pay artists performance royalties, and European radio only holds out in protest against the American commercial radio model.

This pending law couples with another interesting phenomenon: the trend towards consumer generated playlists at Rhapsody, Last FM, and a new site I am experimenting with called Finetune (note the Finetune player in the navigation area to your left called Ninety Mile Wind Radio, and feel free to enjoy it while you read). It seems that many consumers are leaning away from owning music altogether. If you can find it, why not just program the content that others have provided for you, rather than download hundreds of files? Most consumers do not have time to manage a database of mp3 files anyway. If they can stream rather than own, and if streaming can provide some royalty compensation for writers and artists, maybe this is one of the solutions we are seeking.

Something else has caught my attention, although it will be old news to some, and that is the prophetic accuracy of the Lawrence Lessig book Free Culture (Penguin Press, 2004). In it Lessig lays out very compelling arguments for why our laws should be stimulating the innovative use of intellectual property rather than clamping down on it. He does not advocate copyright anarchy like some, but rather the recognition that limited free use of music and video content not only competes with illegal downloading, it creates a medium unto itself when extended to classrooms that allow for the expression of concepts that have been limited to text-only essays for decades. In the hands of the younger generation, free malleable content has provided a voice that older generations never had. When tragedies occur, websites like You Tube become the means of interpreting these events with music, video and text put to creative use in the hands of the common man. Some of it is more compelling than the slick corporate media presentations by networks like CNN, which literally announced at one point "we don't write the story, we ARE the story in Iraq".

Mr. Lessig also makes the case that in the future it will be even easier to subscribe to, and access services that store content. Much like a very powerful cell phone browser that is always connected to the wireless Internet everywhere you go (keep in mind this was written 3 years before the iphone was released). When this type of fast, roaming, dependable service is available there will be a shift towards access to web based content and away from ownership via personal storage devices.

So what will keep the creators, the film makers, the authors and composers in business if access to copyrighted material is as easy as signing up for Rhapsody or Finetune or some other yet to be founded domain and creating your playlist or your book and film library? Who will pay for the creation of new content if it can all be borrowed indefinitely?

This is where it gets tricky, but solutions have been proposed.

In Lessig's words :

"Rather than seeking to destroy the Internet, or the p2p technologies that are currently harming content providers on the Internet, we should find a relatively simple way to compensate those who are harmed. The idea would be a modification of a proposal that has been floated by Harvard law professor William Fisher. Fisher suggests a very clever way around the current impasse of the Internet. Under his plan, all content capable of digital transmission would (1) be marked with a digital watermark (don’t worry about how easy it is to evade these marks; as you’ll see, there’s no incentive to evade them). Once the content is marked, then entrepreneurs would develop (2) systems to monitor how many items of each content were distributed. On the basis of those numbers, then (3) artists would be compensated. The compensation would be paid for by (4) an appropriate tax. Fisher’s proposal is careful and comprehensive. It raises a million questions, most of which he answers well in his upcoming book, Promises to Keep. The modification that I would make is relatively simple: Fisher imagines his proposal replacing the existing copyright system. I imagine it complementing the existing system."

So there you have it. The majority of consumers in the future will subscribe to, rather than purchase-to-own content, including music. The radio, including Internets and streaming consumer-generated playlists will be required by law to pay a modest royalty to artists and writers alike. And finally, a simple tax or subscription fee could be used to supplement those who might be harmed or who might slip through the cracks in a strict Royalty-Per-Play system.

It all seems too practical doesn't it?

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