Indecent pricing

indecentproposal05

Inspired again this morning by a Clay Shirky twitter (this microblogging might have legs you know) 

Dear AAPL, re offer to upgrade to iTunes+ at $0.30 a song: Go fuck yourselves. I took yr stupid DRM off myself, too late to bill me now

This reminds me (a) of a great gaping void cartoon:

Hugh MacLeod cartoon about DRM

And (b) of a reductionist version of the plot of the Robert Redford and Demi Moore blockbuster. Redford says to Moore ‘Will you sleep with me for a million dollars’. Moore and that bloke from Cheers talk about it for a few days. They can use the money, it’s just the once etc etc and they decide to do it. Moore goes back to Redford and say’s ‘OK you’re on’. (This is where we diverge from the plot they actually showed in the film). Redford then says, ‘Well in that case, let’s make it $50’. Moore is shocked. ‘Well’, he say, ‘we’ve already agreed that you’re for hire (or  a less nice phrase), so now we’re just arguing about price’.

I think Shirky’s ire is slightly misdirected at Apple, who are only the middlemen in this one but the point remains the same. In this last stand in the DRM ‘debate’, the record companies admit defeat and still try and charge us more money for music we’ve often bought two or three times from them already. I still believe most users are willing to pay a reasonable price for music, but the record business will have to face up to the fact that they are not a monopoly. They are competing with a free market for identical (if illegal) products.

Making music history

Anthony H Wilson

This weekend marks two endings. One very sad and one very happy.

In this article, Andrew Orlowski sums up the love/hate relationship Manchester had with Anthony H Wilson, who died this weekend. A founder of the legendary Factory records and TV journalist, I remember vividly the first time I saw Anthony Wilson, on Other Side of Midnight, full of pomposity and unnecessary intellectualism, introducing breakthrough bands like Stone Roses in between bizarre folk acts that probably shouldn’t have seen the light of day and certainly not a TV studio. Or on Channel Four’s “After Dark” evoking a spirit of grand elitist debate replete with huge leather chairs, smoke filled rooms and gradually dwindling whisky decanters.

I remember vividly too seeing him in the flesh for the first time backstage at a concert by Durutti Column (whom he supported endlessly), gliding around like Manchester royalty.

Besides his manner and outspoken views, Anthony Wilson was famous for never really managing to make any money (although those around him often did).  In his own words ‘Some people make money, some people make history’.

Well perhaps Universal Music Group is trying to make history. On the weekend when we mourn Anthony Wilson, we hear that UMG will ‘test’ DRM free music. The word ‘test’ is UMG trying to keep their options slightly open as they follow EMI down the path of liberalization, but they’re very unlikely to be able to go back to DRM.

The move is a surprise, although not an unwelcome one. While the DRM debate was looking intractable, wholesale surrender hadn’t seemed very likely. The move signals intent from music companies to make their money elsewhere. UMG in particular has been pushing Apple for a cut of profits from iPod sales (a similar deal is in place with Microsoft for the Zune). Interestingly the DRM tracks will initially not be available on iTunes, meaning that iPod owners will need to experiment with other online shops (HMV and Virgin both operate in this area) for DRM-free tracks, that will now be importable into iTunes.

The result will be good for consumers. In breaking Apple’s monopoly on legal iPod-compatible downloads, there will be virtually no breaks on the price war that will ensue. At last we may be close to “decent product, decent price” digital downloads.

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. 

I predict a riot

1934 Minneapolis riot 

Very interesting to read Antony’s two articles about the happenings at Digg: Ey up, there’s trouble at t’Digg… and Thoughts on the Great Digg Revolt of 2007. Digg, obviously, is a folksonomy or bookmarking-popularity site, and a large number of its users were pointing the way to a crack for encryption of high-def DVDs. Digg received a take down demand for this content from the owner of the intellectual property and did so. They did explain what they’d done, somewhat apologetically, saying that it was within  their terms and conditions to do so and that otherwise they’d be exposed to a costly law suit.

This caused anger amongst the users who posted the key, and links to it, back onto the site thousands of times. (grab below from Ant). Digg backed down saying it would rather go down in flames then halt its users right to… folksonomy and break the law. The code in any case is everywhere, from YouTube videos, and other tagging sites to t-shirts and bulletin boards, as reported in the New York Times.

Digg and the HD DVD code

There’s a number of things going on here and I think it’s possible to get blinded by the ingenuity of users to keep the number public and our mass-contempt for DRM:

  • To publish the code is an infringement of copyright law, just like using Napster used to be when it was full of other people’s record collections. No one liked it when the Napster crack down started but I’ve never heard anyone come up with a proper argument against it. Same with allofmp3.com. We just knew the game was up and our quiet lawlessness had been halted.
  • It is relevant that people weren’t taking responsibility for their actions. If lots of people had put it on their own blogs or sites then fine, but they didn’t. They put it on Wikipedia, YouTube, Digg and bulletin boards. That does make a difference. I don’t think Antony’s defence that putting it on your own blog would be like staging a sit in in your own house is a reasonable analogy.
  • Obviously people are clever and will work around a system, and they now have lots of tools to do that. That’s fascinating and fun to watch but not a defense. In the analogy from the first point, Bit Torrent and Limewire don’t justify copyright theft.
  • No one likes DRM, it feels wrong and it can’t last. But it is the current law. In a democratic society, we can protest but we can’t break laws to change them.
  • Whoever decided to start sending the letters and take-down notices is a clutz and poured fuel on the fire. In practical terms they’ve pretty much guaranteed they’ll never put the geenie back in the bottle.

Anyway, an interesting debate. I think Digg’s management team were put in a difficult position but I think caving in to mass action was poorly considered. 

If we want to solve the “moral” problem here, think what it would have been like if Chris Locke had decided he was within his rights to keep allowing the Sierra hate-content, or other users thought they should repost it to protect ‘freedom of speech’. When you substitue in a law we care about, it doesn’t seem to hard to work out what to do.

Or, show it for what it really was. Not so much a revolution as a riot. Are riots a powerful force: yes. Are they moral or legal: no. They may highlight an issue but they do not justify their means.

See also: RMM London’s excellent post on public and private spaces.