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On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger

Napster & The Copyright Minefield, Part 2
April 23rd, 2001

Last week, I discussed how the information age and new technologies made it easy to steal copyrighted materials. I explained, in part, why copyright laws exist and why I believe that the music industry, despite all its flaws, cannot be blamed for wanting to make money from CD sales. This week's piece is about the ways that people justify their illegal behavior. Also, I will suggest a solution to the whole problem of copyright and the music industry's monopoly in the Information Age.

I had the occasion, while reading material for this column, to look at the Copyright Acts of Canada and the US, A Guide to Copyrights by the Canadian government, as well as a couple of essays from scholars on the issue. I discovered that copyright is governed by the Berne Copyright Convention, the Universal Copyright Convention, the Rome Convention and the members of the World Trade Organization. Just as with other rights, there are international agreements that protect a creator’s right to profit from his ideas, and when such agreements take place, it is usually for great fundamental reasons. If you create, you deserve protection since others are likely to want a free ride. Are there weaknesses in copyright laws; weaknesses that allow people to make piles of cash out of music? Yes. However, as I explained in part 1, making money is not a crime. Too many people will refuse to admit that, too. Perhaps because they are jealous and are not the ones who are profiting from it. It is a trade off. Many will complain about the music industry's methods, but if you were to place those same complaining people into the shoes of the RIAA, I have little doubt that they would have a change of heart.

Too many people, when they disagree with laws or accepted conventions of society, want to pursue their own interests at any price. If the rules do not give them whatever they want, they think that the rules are their to be broken. If these people do not want to pay US$15 or CDN$20 for a music CD, then they will steal it, feeling justified the entire time that they shouldn't have to pay so much. Never would they consider abiding by the rules.

Nobody is above the law, and no matter how people try to justify their illegal behavior, they will never be able to make stealing anywhere close to acceptable, even if they sweeten it with the idea that their piracy is done for non-profit purposes. Breaking the law does not always have something to do with profits!

Many people who download music from Napster or get their friends to burn CDs for them have a feeling of entitlement. They believe that they are entitled to own the music without paying for it. They view it as morally acceptable to copy someone's work without paying for it, and they will use just any excuse to justify it. Such a feeling of entitlement is awfully selfish, and it arrogantly overlooks other people's rights.

Reverse the situation. How would it feel to folks who refuse to buy a CD because of its price, if their employer decided to stop giving them a paycheck, telling them that they would still have to work? The employer would say that he believes in paying the employee, but the wages negotiated by workers unions and the taxes paid to the government make a workforce too expensive to him. How would these people react? They would loathe their employer's feeling of entitlement and argue that they deserve every dollar they can earn. Moreover, they would be likely to quit and find another job. Reverse the situation again and let an artist tell the same consumer that if he does not pay for the CD, he will stop writing and recording music. Observe the reaction; feel the contradictions.

* * *

In a very interesting reflection, Del Miller asks:

What is music anyway? Pressure fluctuations strike our eardrums and somehow generate sensations in our brain that we somehow find pleasurable. Signals propagate through the air along with the rattle of jackhammers and the roar of diesels, yet we pluck them from the noise that surrounds us and perceive them as something that enriches our lives. It's magic, in a way. But for all the value we give to these pulses in the air, they are only the ethereal echoes of some mechanical vibration. How then can a person "own" a vibration? How can we buy and sell harmonics? Who gives one person the right to allow or to deny others to hear the music?

Without offense to Del, this is horrific manipulation of the concept of music. He deconstructs the physical aspect of sound, to, perhaps without wanting to, get the reader to suppose that since music is vibration, the idea of owning it is irrelevant. One has to oppose such an implication! At that rate, nothing could be owned. A house, when you think of it, is nothing but particles that give wood and metal, as well as other materials, to shape the building. Del could not own his columns and do whatever he wants with them, since when they sit on a hard disk drive, they are nothing but data in the form of 1’s and 0’s, and when you display them on a screen, they are nothing but pixels of light. Then, how do we describe an idea? As an electrical flash going through parts of the brain? This is dangerous territory; the distortion can drive right toward nihilism, since nobody would own anything because the whole world is based on particles, light, vibrations, and cells. It would be too easy to strip anybody from his creativity.


I believe that the organizations that duke it out are serving their own interests rather than fighting for what is right. This bugs me since I would like this battle to be one of principles, instead of a clash of self-interests. Oh well, so much for idealism...

In the end I do not believe that Napster or the RIAA are 100% right. What I think is that copyright laws are imperfect, but they are necessary to protect many people inside and outside the music industry. They allow big name labels to make lots of money with a monopoly situation, but I find this a lesser evil than allowing any thief to steal other people's creativity without giving a single penny. The music CD is too expensive if you compare the retail price to the production cost, but most people can afford it. US$15 is not a fortune for 50 to 74 minutes of music. We could debate the idea of whole albums versus singles, but that would be another story.

My solution? Independent labels, with open-minded ways to sign artists and distribute music, are what we should push for. If they become powerful enough, they can become an incredible counterweight and force everybody to adjust the CD price downwards. This would be entirely legal and it would swing power away from monopolistic labels. The last time I visited the local HMV music store in Montreal, an employee told me that independent labels are invading the music world again. At the same time, I noticed that my favorite type of underground music is flourishing again, in part because of independent labels. Coincidence? I hope not.

Remember that you like getting paid for your productivity at work, and that quite a few musicians have the same feeling. Cracking down on copyright is not the solution to satisfy your lust for cheap CDs; the problem requires a better solution.

Michael Munger is a French Canadian living in Montreal. He discovered the Mac in 1994 while studying journalism, the profession he loves and practices. He also studied history and communications. In addition to his work at The Mac Observer, he authors the iBasics tutorial column at Low End Mac, and cofounded MacSoldiers in 1998.

You can find more about him at his personal Web site.

You are welcome to send me your comments or you can post them below.

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