Right on the money

 Mickey Mouse - Steamboat Willie

Probably the most interesting debate at the moment in digital is about DRM. Digital Rights Management – the attempt to restrict and control the distribution of copyrighted digital (entertainment) content – has a sort of farsical quality.

Typically DRM only really impacts on all the sorts of people who would never dream of copying music in the first place. All the others – the ones that scare the record companies to death, basically clued up kids – simply ignore and circumvent it.

Bill Gates (and bear in mind that Microsoft created the most widely used DRM platform outside iTunes) advised customers to buy music on CDs and rip them, because DRM was so problematic and badly implemented. In particular, we are now expecting customers to pay for something that they don’t then get to own – they can’t resell it, lend it or even store it somewhere temporarily. If their computer goes “bye bye”, the music will probably go with it.

EMI’s move to sell DRM-free music is bizarre for two reasons. Firstly because they are charging 20cents more per track which is DRM free. What signal are we sending there if not ‘pay us 20cents more and get to share it with your mates’? Secondly because it seems to have been done without any strategy for how it might be made to work. It feels incredibly last chance saloon.

Peter Gabriel has just launched a new site that hopes to solve this problem by inserting pre-roll ads on otherwise freely downloadable music. We7 gives you the track free, and if you listen to ads on the track for a few weeks, you get to download a version without ads. I love the desire to solve the problem but don’t think it will work. The problem is that these sites aren’t really competing with paid-for music, they’re competing with free music on bit torrent. The youth of today (!) simply don’t expect to pay for this stuff. It’s a big problem. As Peter Gabriel said on News 24 Click, the record companies seem to be a bit like King Canute, sitting on the beach and ordering the tide not to come in.

One commentator on this subject is Andrew Orlowski. He’s been predicting some sort of PRS-style blanket licensing of music, although this dream has only recently been shot down by the head of the Collection Societies (of PRS-style organisations around the world).

In this lecture (on the site you get the slides and an audio recording), Larence Lessig points to the fact that despite the internet we are actually less free than we ever have been with regards to what copyright law allows us to do. Some of the laws may be unenforced or unenforcable, but he argues – quite brilliantly – that rights’ owners are pushing their luck more than ever before, and that this control is actively stifling creativity.

It’s quite a long presentation (30 odd minutes) but I’d strongly recommend anyone who’s interested in this area to take the time out to give it a listen. One brilliant observation is that Walt Disney took most of his inspiration from uncopyrighted works to create everything from Steamboat Willie (the first Mickey Mouse movie, above, a take-off of Steamboat Bill with Buster Keaton) to Snow White (from the Brothers Grimm). Of course, Disney now protects copyright as its most important asset.

The solution remains elusive. It seems it’s more likely to be around the major labels disappearing and artists and consumers having more direct relationships. Will users pay for value? of course. But heaven knows if it will be in the form of a music download. With the DRM genie firmly out of the bottle, we need to find a way to pay artists for their work but perhaps not to milk the content for time immemorial as we are today.