The Hard Way

It’s amazing to watch as the RIAA and the MPAA attempt to screw consumers even more than they already do. This week, Congress is set to consider legislation that would allow copyright holders to hack your PC to disable “publicly accessible peer-to-peer networks” with immunity from state and federal laws. Waitaminute. Isn’t this the same administration that made hacking a terrorist offence, punishable by life imprisonment?

This announcement is part of a multi-pronged attack on fair use, complemented by Microsoft’s proposed Palladium technology and proposed legislation to plug the “analog hole”. The part that leaves me dumbstruck is the sheer amount of money that’s being thrown at the problem of content piracy, while little attention is actually being paid to the one thing that might actually make piracy a redundant practice: giving the consumer value for their money!

Let’s examine the reasons that I might pirate content:

  • Price: For about $20 I can buy a CD that cost about two cents to manufacture. True, the manufacturing costs are miniscule compared to the actual production process, but how much of that money actually went to the production of the music? Chances are, most money went to the marketing, the distribution, and buying shelf space (yes, they have to do that) at Virgin. I, as, a consumer, don’t care about that. The only thing I’m interesting in doing is paying the artist for their music.
  • Choice: When I buy that $20 CD, what do I actually get? Probably 1 or 2 worthwhile songs, and 12 songs of “filler”. Why am I paying for filler? It’s like paying for the air in a bag of potato chips. In most cases, I’m interested in a specific song or two, not the album. That said, there have been times that the popular song has turned out to be the worst song on the CD.
  • Convenience: If I want new music right now my choices are: a) Leave work and go find a record store; or b) fire up Kazaa and download the song I want now.

Despite the Internet’s capacity to ruthlessly eliminate middlemen, I believe that media companies still have an important role to play in bringing quality entertainment to the public. However, their ham-fisted attempts to become players in the digital media marketplace has betrayed how little they understand or respect their customers:

  • Subscription-based music services: These services, such as PressPlay and MusicNet, offer the illusion of a product competitive with P2P download services, but fail to deliver. They fail to deliver convenience by using proprietary file formats that can’t be played on popular MP3 players (such as Apple’s iPod), and tie you to the service (once you stop your subscription, you lose access to the downloaded music). They fail to deliver on choice, providing a limited catalogue of artists.
  • DVD region codes: VHS technology suffered from the problem that you couldn’t take a tape from the UK and play it in the US. With the advent of DVD technology, a reasonable consumer would assume that they could now move freely around the world with their DVDs. Guess again. DVDs include a region code that specifies the region in which DVDs can be played, and manufacturers of DVD players are required by the DVD technology license to only play DVDs from their region. The restriction was incorporated to allow the movie industry to continue to release movies at different times in different regions without the risk that foreign DVDs cutting into domestic box office sales. Of course, this restriction means that a laptop DVD player is essentially useless when travelling to other regions.
  • Electronic Newspapers: The clumsiness isn’t limited to the music and movie industries. Newspapers, such as The New York Times, are turning to technology from NewStand Inc. to deliver electronic version of their newspapers. These electronic versions are identical to their paper-based cousins, with the exception that they can only be viewed for 21 days. And despite the fact that the electronic versions are probably produced for near-zero cost, the cost of a subscription is almost identical to that of a paper newspaper. Same price, less convenience.

The common theme here: the media companies are producing the same product, packaging it in a less convenient form, and charging the same price. Of course, these companies aren’t stupid. They realize that digital technology offers them the opportunity to reduce costs while maintaining (or even increasing) revenue. All they need to do is figure out how to make people buy their product instead of pirating it. They have two choices:

  • The Easy Way: First, media companies need to drop their prices in recognition of the cost-effectiveness of digital distribution. Second, they need to adopt standard technology that allows people to use the media they have purchased without restriction. Finally, they need to open their entire catalogue of artists and movies, and license them promiscuously. Taking these steps would allow the media companies to compete with P2P technologies by offering people what they want, at a reasonable price that is competitive with the cost of the time they would spend searching P2P services.
  • The Hard Way: First, restrict the capabilities of digital technology through strategic partnerships with manufactures and technology companies. Second, make it illegal to circumvent copyright protection by pushing through draconian legislation (such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act). Third, create solutions that restrict fair use. Finally, lay back and count the cash as it rolls in.

Of course, the industry is choosing The Hard Way because, at the end of the day, they’re sure to make more money. Doing things The Easy Way would require the media industry to be producing a quality product by developing promising artists. Instead, The Hard Way allows them to continue to pump out the flavour of the week and not worry that people might just be deleting the songs as fast as they download them.

What a shame that The Hard Way is a sure way to Easy Money.

Blank Media Tax

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or you’re not part of the technology community), you’ve probably heard of the Copyright Board of Canada‘s current proposal to levy tariffs on blank audio media. The purpose of the proposed tariffs is to compensate the music industry for lost sales due to digital piracy. Unfortunately, this proposal is misguided and fatally flawed for a number of reasons.

First, the proposed tariffs are overly broad: The proposed levies apply to types of media that are not exclusively used for music. For example, the tariffs proposed would be applied to recordable compact discs, despite the fact that such discs are also used by businesses to archive their mission critical data. As another example, the tariffs would also be applied to “Removable electronic memory cards, removable flash memory storage media of any type, and removable micro-hard drives” despite the fact that those media are used by digital cameras and digital micro-recorders. These tariffs would ignore the legitimate uses of these forms of media (beyond music storage), as well as the protected uses of these media to allow a consumer to time-shift and space-shift their own music collections, as protected under Canadian copyright law.

Second, the tariffs only benefit the music industry: The proposed levies are purported to allow the music industry to recoup losses due to piracy. However, the media that is the target of the proposed tariffs can just as easily be used to pirate copyrighted computer software, movies, or electronic books. Why should these tariffs be levied solely for the purpose of protecting the music industry, while ignoring the other industries impacted by digital piracy?

Finally, there is no mechanism described for the distribution of funds collected: The proposed tariffs skimp on the details of how the funds collected through this tariff are to be collected and distributed to the copyright holders. Who gets how much? Is it decided by the music industry? Can they be trusted to pass along the appropriate amount to the artists? Probably not. I wonder if I cut a CD, I can qualify for a cut of the proceeds?

The thing that bugs me most is that although the Board is seeking input, there is no real way to oppose the adoption of the tariffs. According to the proposal document

“The Board must certify a tariff and set a levy. Those who own the rights to sound recordings of musical works (composers, authors, performers and producers) are entitled to be remunerated for private copies. No purpose is served by asking the Board to reject the tariff as a whole.”

What purpose is served by asking for input, if the Board is not actually interested in listening to any opposing viewpoints, and acting on them?

This tariff will have a dire impact on industries that are in no way responsible for piracy or even related to the music industry. The tariff would essentially be a subsidy for the music industry, and ignore the other industries affected by digital piracy. The tariffs are ill-conceived, and should not be adopted. If anything, they should be scrapped, as should their 2001-2002 equivalents. It’s just another sad attempt by the music industry to squeeze more money out of consumers, screw the artists, and pocket the extra cash.

Mad yet? Good. Write your MP. Or better yet, start downloading and burning music before the new tariffs take effect.