License to be good

By Andrew Leonard


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Salon Staff
October 2, 2000 11:46PM (UTC)

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I think everyone in the IT industry recognizes that a GPL approach is the only sensible way to go for the music industry (as well as most other IP-based industries). What gives us this insight is the fact that we all know that IP will be copied, distributed and used in ways that the original authors didn't intend. To construct a business (or in this case an entire industry) trying to ignore this fact is simply to be doomed to failure.

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Software authors are willing to take this gambit for two reasons: The belief that the success of the software will drive money to them in alternative ways (support contracts, subscription services, having your name tied to a big project, etc.) and ideology. The nice thing about this is that the two can happen at the same time.

Translating these ideas to the music industry is pretty difficult, though. I mean, obviously we can see why Apache would prefer this distribution method. However, why would the Bay City Rollers choose it? I choose this band deliberately -- they were not market-driven like the Rolling Stones. And any loss of album sales can essentially not be replaced by an alternative avenue.

This is essentially the problem with applying the GPL-style license to the arts. Where are the value-added services? I've heard a few suggestions over the years like: Download the album for free -- but if you buy it you get $5 off concert tickets, T-shirts, etc. Again, the problem of the Bay City Rollers ... or worse, some totally unknown band.

These are all legitimate problems that the music industry has with Napster, Gnutella, et al. The fact is though, the music industry could've ensured that these projects never really succeeded. If the music industry had allowed people to download songs for 50 cents a pop in 1999, Napster essentially would not exist. Of course, they wanted to wait for SDMI -- the market didn't.

Much of the music industry's problem lies between the ears of Jack Valenti. I can't decide if this man is a total idiot or very clever. He was the head of the MPAA back in '82 when he compared the motion picture industry to a lone woman on the street, and compared the VCR to a serial killer. The MPAA fought like crazy to prevent VCRs from being widely accessible in the United States. Interestingly, the home video market now brings big bucks to the MPAA. In fact, it really created another distribution channel for the industry. I suspect that Napster will do the same ... in time.

-- Barry Stinson

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Despite their common ability to be reduced to binary strings, I have to insist that there is a fundamental difference between software and music files that makes any licensing comparisons pointless. Software in its binary form is a product of only potential usefulness, a product that supports a huge and highly profitable industry of maintenance and support. Music, on the other hand, is in completely consumable from the second the download completes, requiring no further input from any of its creators.

I agree that the digital genie is out of the bottle as far as file swapping goes, but suspect any future profitability in music sales is not going to come from some dutiful ante-up from consumers, but rather from record companies (and artists themselves) emphasizing the "whole package" aspect of commercially released CDs.

-- Bill Decker


Salon Staff

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