The U.S. Copyright Office and the Recording Industry Associate of America (RIAA) are doing exactly what they exist to do: protect and police the intellectual property of their constituencies. This post by Off Colfax a few days ago about the Copyright Review Board’s decision to raise royalty rates precipitously for streaming copyrighted content over the web (usually by commercial and web radio services), as well as stories like this one, do nothing to enhance the perception of the RIAA as a common thug with the support of the Copyright Office. Indeed, it’s gotten so bad that the RIAA recently won a contest (in public perception only) for being the worst company in America.
Naturally, it’s unpopular to lend support to an institution known for threatening lawsuits against college students, 12-year-olds, and grandmothers, or one that seems hellbent on instituting punitive royalty rates. I goofed in my first comment on this subject, as I didn’t get that new royalty rates for streaming content will likely put an end to web radio. (I still don’t understand the motivation behind it.) But unlike a lot of consumers, I’m no novice at intellectual property issues (see here and here). So the usual tropes consumers offer up to rationalize their illegal, infringing behaviors get no quarter with me.
What interests me now is that the entire notion of copyright, with its hundreds of years of support in legal practice, appears to be simply beyond the power of most folks to adequately comprehend. That change of sea means that widespread infringement and grassroots movements to relax or invalidate copyright protections, ironically undertaken at the same time that the U.S. government is seeking to impose stronger IP protections on other governments, probably doom the recording industry to extinction. If the consuming public determines, justly or unjustly, that a particular body of law is invalid and won’t respect it, then that law usually gets changed (or flatly ignored, like speed limits). The precipitating factor, in my view, is the technological simplicity of copying — the very thing copyright prohibits.
Before the photocopy machine and digital media, copying and piracy were far more costly and time consuming. Now, the ease and ubiquity of infringing behaviors have become a sort of death by a thousand cuts, except that it’s millions and billions of cuts. The business model on which the recording industry has been based for about 100 years is now so entirely destabilized and transitional that its very survival is threatened. In that context, it’s perfectly reasonable (if unpopular) for the RIAA to seek recourse through legal means, which includes infringement lawsuits (real and threatened) and resetting royalty rates. But the public’s insistence that new distribution methods and business models must (must!) be developed because, like the newspapers, the industry is already dead but doesn’t yet realize it, will probably win the day eventually. If and when that happens, and the financial incentive for creative work disappears with it (since creative work won’t be protectible), I wonder whether it will be a classic case of getting what you want but then deserving what you eventually get: crap music and crap media.