Friday, 20 February 2009

Some quick scribblings on copyright

Copyright has been in the news quite a bit this past week. First of all, the EU approved extending the period of copyright protection for musicians. Then internet users around the world embraced a self-imposed blackout out of solidarity with campaigners in New Zealand fighting a proposed law that would make it possible to sever the internet connections of people accused of breaching copyright. That is, merely accused, not actually found guilty. And in the meantime, Swedish based BitTorrent tracker, Pirate Bay, are in court fighting a lawsuit brought against them by the music industry for copyright infringement.

My personal feelings regarding copyright have always been a bit ambiguous. First of all, I actually like to physically own an album on vinyl or CD. I like the designs, I like the sleeve notes and all the imagery and really appreciate it when musicians put effort into the album beyond the actual music. For me, an album is a wider entity, a display of emotions and ideas that extends beyond the simple collection of tracks that it’s reduced to when put into digital format. That’s not to say I only believe an album can exist in a tangible form. I actually believe it’s ultimately somewhat intangible, but all the accompanying non-musical artistic work help reinforce the spirit of the album.

Secondly, as a DJ who uses Serato ScratchLive, I want only decent quality digital formats and also owing to my eclectic tastes the best place to find the tunes I want, in high quality, is often in the online record stores. And further to this, as a DJ who has often been paid for his sets in clubs, playing other people’s music, I only feel right to plough that money back into other artists, by paying for their tracks. Therefore, I’ve never felt the need to download illegally or obtain copies and thus find myself well and truly in the whole copyright quagmire. To really affirm my opinions on the subject I do need to read into it more, which I am currently doing.

I know enough though, that I believe music, like all the arts, should be shared with the world. Therefore I find copyright laws inherently repressive and counterproductive to the true purpose of music, which is to inspire, instil hope, enliven and empathise with people’s emotions. I very much want to get into producing music, once I have the time, and when I complete my first production I’ll be happy to share it for free with the world. However, I recognise the fact that for somebody who goes into the music business full time they have to be compensated in some way for this devotion of their time, hence payment is necessary, but still the prevailing ethos behind music should be that it is made to be enjoyed and shared, not profited from.

Which is why I find the news from the European Union that they are to extend copyright protection from 50 to 95 years utterly ridiculous. The main thrust of the argument appears to be that musicians should profit from their early work when they need it most, in their later years. If that’s the case, then why can’t it be applied to many other jobs? Why can’t the brickie profit from the house he built fifty years ago? Why can’t the cosmetic surgeon profit from the tit job he did last century? They then contradict this argument by going on to state that copyright protection for music written by collaborative artists will extend to 70 years beyond the DEATH of the last surviving author.

Although I am undecided about copyright laws in general, particularly with my eagerness to reconcile the right to share and build upon art with the right of the artist to be compensated, at the moment I believe that if they must exist, it should be for no more than ten years and I’m inclined to think maybe even less. This is to allow the musicians to benefit upon immediate production and dissemination of their work, as we all do, but after that make it beneficial to the wider community by making it free to the world.

Hence, my opinion on the Pirate Bay trial is somewhat undecided. I support their case in as much as I can see all they do is simply facilitate filesharing. They don’t physically copy files or force people to share them - they’re no more than a lighthouse guiding ships in the dark and this is why the prosecution have dropped half their charges. I’m not yet ready to jump headlong into the huge wave of anti-copyright support that backs Piracy Bay, but I do have a longstanding hatred of the major record companies and such bodies as the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, as I put forward in my post last year about the ProDub licence for DJs in the UK.

The industry is well known for being fiercely out of touch with reality in the digital age. Although a recent survey from Marrakesh records and Human Capital showed many young people feel music should be free, half have still paid for a download and 70% paid for a CD, indicating to some extent that young people will still pay for their music.

Most interesting was that those surveyed “felt £6.58 is a fair price for CD album, but that a downloaded album should be just £3.91 and a single 39p” – a lot cheaper than what we currently pay online and reflective of the groundswell of opinion I’ve sensed for a few years, that people don’t mind paying for music, but it should be cheaper. Unfortunately, the industry appears deaf to such a general consensus and is determined to squeeze every last penny out of the consumer, standing in the way of any real debate on reforming copyright laws.

An argument I put forward against the ProDub licence was that it seemed to me to be the act of a blinded, stubborn buffoon of an industry that had been losing the fight against piracy for years. So in order to recoup some of their losses, they looked for easy targets. Ordinary people downloading music at home are hard to pin down whereas DJs playing off laptop are clearly playing other people’s music and are easy to back into a corner by introducing a mandatory licence and forcing venues to make sure they only book DJs that hold one.

The Piracy Bay lawsuit seems to be a similar tactic. Target those who are easy to find and continue to completely ignore the overwhelming general consensus that music is too expensive.

And finally, the Guilt Upon Accusation law in New Zealand which will force ISPs to break the internet connection of those simply only accused of copyright infringement, not actually found guilty in a court of law. This is another example of governments bowing to pressure from the media industry rather than taking it upon themselves to have a serious discussion of copyright laws that are quite clearly out of touch with the digital world and the vast number of people that are a part of it.

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These are just some brief thoughts that I shall return to within the next week, stay tuned and feel free to leave any comments.

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