Much ado about copying: Readers respond to Scott Matthews' "Copying Isn't Cool" and other recent Salon stories on file sharing.

By Salon Staff

Published September 17, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

[Read "Copying Isn't Cool."]

I just don't understand who's threatened here.

The solution, for music, is simple as one, two, three.

One, put everything ever recorded on a gigantic server farm. Charge for this music, about 99 cents a track. This is fundamentally the best way to distribute music ever invented. Type in "Louis Armstrong" and then select from everything he ever did. Google for music. That was what was so wonderful about Napster.

Two, allow the sharing of all songs, but demand that ISPs monitor the actual files downloaded, and determine the most popular, etc., and forward that data to the appropriate monitoring body. Charge the ISPs a per-subscriber fee for their use of copyrighted material. This, of course, would be recovered in the ISP's monthly charge.

Three, remember, you're still selling CDs and their successors. Better sample rates. Cover art. People love their CD collections.

Since the average family spends less than $100 a year in music, if you get a piece of every Internet account in America, you've got a big chunk of change, and a more accurate "hit parade" than ever before. Who's out of luck? Blockbuster? KISS-FM and the rest of the manipulative marketing machine? Maybe. Certainly not the artists or the labels.

Oh, I know who'd lose out: the moral and technological dunces who don't want the best machines in world history for the sharing of information to be used to do that.

-- Jim Hassinger

I have presented this idea in a number of forums and so I will do the same here. This is not an attempt at sweeping reform of copyright laws nor is it a new means of distributing wealth to content creators. Rather, this is a level-headed compromise between those who consume music and those who produce or represent those who produce music: Legalize low bit-rate music trading. In the spirit of old-school radio recordings and mix-tape swapping, both sides of this quagmire should de-criminalize the sharing of files encoded below a reasonable threshold -- say 96 Kb. Audio files of that quality are amply suitable for low-fidelity enjoyment -- trying out new artists, exposing new music to others -- while at the same time still providing an incentive to "upgrade" to higher-quality recordings of music that one would want to include in one's library. The industry could chose to police the P2P networks in search of higher bit-rate file sharers, but ultimately, both sides would benefit from this arrangement. Consumers would be free to experiment with radio-quality versions of music, provide free word-of-mouth advertising, and still leave something resembling a business model for those who wish to produce content for the next hundred years.

-- Sasha Gelbart

When will the RIAA understand that people are buying fewer CDs not because they can get songs for free, but because they're tired of paying for music they don't want? Buying a $15 or $18 CD gets you the two or three songs that will be played on the radio, plus ten tracks of crap. Even with a scarcity of marquee performers and limits on what you can do with the music, the various competing online music companies are reporting very strong sales. This should be seen as an indication of the willingness of Americans to pay for what they want, as long as somebody is willing to offer it. CD sales are down because people now realize that there are ways to get music beyond purchasing a whole CD. As soon as the RIAA's member companies wake up to that fact, online music sharing will drop off the mainstream, and become just another dark backwater of the Internet.

-- Kevin Quinn

The free-speech section of Matthews' article is so confused that it's hard to figure out where to start poking holes in it.

The key problem is that he equates a proposed system of compulsory licensing with something like the NEA grants process. Sure, the government has a track record of not volunteering money to fund offensive art, but the money in question here is not "public funding"; it's money collected through licensing of specific copyrighted works. I defy Matthews to find examples of politicians trying to keep Alice Cooper from getting his 8 cents per song when someone covers his material.

He also says that "there's no reason to believe the First Amendment would apply here," which is perhaps true but mysterious. If the government wanted to discourage pornography by denying it copyright protection, it could do that now; if the First Amendment does leave room to exclude some works from copyright (I have no idea -- not a constitutional scholar) there's no need to change what the benefits of copyright are before deciding that porn can't have them.

These confusions, together with his use of the "seven dirty words" myth and his conflation of CD Baby with download vendors like EMusic and Apple's iTunes Music Store, make Matthews sound like he just doesn't know what he's talking about. Couldn't you find anyone better to take a contrary position?

-- Aaron Mandel

The first thing I thought when I read about the so-called "horror(!) stories of the copyright wars" is that maybe now that there is money to be lost, people will pay more attention to where their kids are on the Internet and what they are doing there. It may have unintended benefits. I think it is insane how little supervision parents have over their kids' surfing, for the children's safety. I wouldn't be so unreasonable as to say it serves them right, but a parent is liable for a child's actions, and I think that is as it should be. File sharing in its present form is at the very least ethically provocative, and for that reason alone children and adults should be discouraged from doing it by their peers until the courts sort it out. In the meantime, adults should keep an eye on where the kids surf.

-- C. Lincoln

The problem with the current copyright debate is those publishing comments have a huge and unremovable interest in convincing us all that copyright infringement equals theft and only by providing a virtual never-ending copyright can artists be encouraged sufficiently to produce anything. Of course, all of that is just nonsense and most of us realize it.

I have spent the last two years writing a cookbook. I will hold a copyright on that book for my lifetime plus 50 years. If I had spent the last two years developing a lovely little pill that cured cancer, I would hold a patent for about 20 years. Schering-Plough, major drug company, is having all sorts of financial trouble because its patent on Claritin has expired. Which involves more work and is of greater benefit to society? Why, then, is the incentive to create a new cookbook, song, magazine article, etc., so great and to create a new drug or other invention so small?

I own a copy of VisiCalc. It is only some 20 years old and there is not a single computer on the market today that will run it. I might be able to find a functioning used system, but by the time the copyright expires some 100 years from now, even that is unlikely. Thus, the point of providing copyright, to add to human knowledge and to provide new tools, will be gone. No one will ever be able to use VisiCalc or any other piece of copyright-protected software once it falls into the public domain. Society will never get the benefit it is supposed to derive from the generous protections it granted the holders.

If we were to reduce the copyright to five years, I doubt one single recording artist, writer, or other creative person would stop producing, but we would create a vast library of material available to the public for free. That was the idea, to reward artists but to also have much material available for free. I don't think Walt Disney, being dead and all, has been given great new incentive to create something as nice as Mickey Mouse, but the public has sure been robbed of its rightful use to that material.

The easiest, fairest and simplest solution to limit piracy is to create a better alternative, that vast, free library. We can do that by shortening the length of copyright to five years. Let's see how much the media supports that idea.

-- Stephen R. Stapleton

The EFF has greatly aggravated me. Their argument for legalizing file sharing is mostly rhetoric, based on sympathy for the "victims" of the RIAA. Believe me, I sympathize with them, I'm livid over the way they're being treated, and I think that something should be done about it, but how exactly can one call this the "big picture"? That's the smallest possible picture, it's short-term and immediate, it's a red herring. And the reason it upsets me is that, being a file-sharing advocate, they're supposedly on "my side"; I will be tarred with the same brush as them. And they do deserve a good tarring.

My own take on things follows a tack that both the EFF and Mr. Matthews explicitly stood against. It's a concept that our culture automatically dismisses before the thought is even completed, but ultimately, I think that we will have to learn to abandon consumer privacy. Matthews himself realized that this would allow a fair system of micropayment compensation, but he becomes guilty of bad debate when he invokes fear of the Big Bad Government knowing everything we do.

First, everyone would have access to the same information, not just the government, so it couldn't be treated as "dirty little secrets" and used for leverage. Second, before such a scheme was adopted, the government would naturally have to be playing by the same rules. The truest sense of public security comes when all the doors are opened, not when they're all closed.

This would of course have to be a voluntary system, but with the right infrastructure it could be made so attractive in terms of convenience and financial benefit that effectively everyone would sign on, including (in fact, especially!) government and big business.

We'd also have to lose our cultural embarrassment over downloading porn. Hmm... well, I guess we'll see the first implementations in Europe instead of here.

-- Lief Clennon

What is the real value of content and what is the real value of distribution?

That's the question in my mind. Just as the stock market occasionally has its reevaluations of its offerings, so do the rest of the world markets. It's based on supply and demand. Historically, much of the supply has been dependent on the distribution network. Controlling the distribution network of a product meant controlling the product. The recording companies were generally distributors of content rather than purveyors of culture.

The Internet revolutionized the distribution of software and we witnessed a revolution in novel software tools. This opened up communication and flexible distribution to software developers creating shareware and freeware and artists who created works that served as calling cards or allowed participation in open-source initiatives. The results are present all over the Web, from creative and entertaining Flash projects to SourceForge and Linux to MP3.com to Photo.net and PhotoSIG. In every avenue of content where there used to exist a difficult-to-navigate distribution network, the Net has succeeded in leveling the playing field.

What we're seeing is an interesting phenomenon. Suddenly, the bottom has fallen out of the market for distribution. This has the drawback that the apparent value of the content has also fallen; however, that is a fallacy. I'm purposefully overstating the case here. The DVD market is booming because that's currently the best way to distribute that product. Some distribution markets are still quite viable; however, others, like airline tickets and hotel reservations, have been clearly revolutionized.

This isn't a war on copyright; it's a war on antiquated distribution methods. Most people engaged in file sharing would much rather download a song from a reliable server over a broadband connection in a minute than wade through the queues of file-sharing networks. Innovative companies have shown that this is a viable business and even included digital rights management (DRM) in the mix.

With DRM, customers are paying for content instead of distribution. In terms of economics, this should allow content providers to concentrate on their main business instead of having to also manage distribution. The result should be a reduction in the cost of the content as it's no longer hinged to the distribution.

Many content providers have not realized this. The situation is complicated by the years of price gouging practiced by the music industry. When one can find valuable shareware and applications on the Net for attractive prices, you need to wonder why you can't also find entertainment similarly available.

If the entertainment industry is thinking, they should look to Apple and shareware creators. They should turn themselves into content providers instead of content distributors. When the price, convenience and content are right, then the customers will follow. But the mob is fickle. Releasing music people would pay for would be one step in the right direction.

-- Jason Viehland

Let's review. The Supreme Court voted narrowly (5-4 if I remember correctly) to let the new information medium, the video cassette recorder, to become a viable entertainment device. But only by one vote. The argument against it? People could illegally record movies and subvert the copyright laws that feed and clothe millions of poor studio executives. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?! Imagine if one justice had thrown a vote the other way. No movie rentals, no Blockbuster, no home movies. All gone because of an industry fear of copyright infringement. It's almost like stopping the construction of streets for the fear of jaywalking.

Let's get real about the threat here. We are talking about making an entirely new information medium (P2P) illegal for a narrow business interest. Free the Internet and it will allow access to new music and information. Access to new music will enlighten more people and therefore drive up CD sales as people go to the store to make purchases of artists who they know they will enjoy. And maybe, just maybe, the music industry will push more artists and not sink to the lowest common denominator of music for the sake of market share (read: Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, etc).

-- Andre Casanave

"Record industry critics will undoubtedly heckle as the RIAA sues people for illegally copying music, but the same copyright laws also protect lots of people like me -- independent musicians, filmmakers, programmers, authors and so on. Our lives are mixed up in this too."

The reason people like me don't take the author of these types of articles seriously is because they are confused. It isn't the copying part that should be illegal; it should be the trading of such files. Fair-usage laws give me the right to copy -- i.e., convert -- CDs to MP3s for my own private use. I do not trade MP3s with anyone and every single MP3 on my hard drive was taken from the 2,000 CDs that I have purchased legally from 1990 to present. But if the RIAA and this author have their way I won't be able to convert CDs to MP3s to listen to on my computer, which is much nicer than switching CDs every other song. I'm sorry, but I don't agree that copying should be illegal -- just distributing said files.

-- BenJamin Rosenberg

Thank you, Scott Matthews, for an intelligent argument against unfettered file sharing. Most important is a point most proponents of file swapping miss: This ain't about big, bad corporations, folks. This is about being able to profit from your work. As a pro musician (part time), I occasionally hear garbage about how the music should belong to everybody. That's a horribly socialist idea -- taking away what someone has worked tirelessly upon, and redistributing it to those who didn't bother to do the work. Is this how you thank your favorite musicians for entertaining you or creating art that you truly admire? By openly stealing their work on an unprecedented, grand scale? This is not like dubbing a cassette or trading live bootlegs. Let the artists who are willing to share their work share it. And if the working musicians who need to pay rent (and pay for the studio equipment used in the recording that you just stole off the Internet) want to keep the rights to their music, let them. I have musician friends who download files illegally from all kinds of independent artists. I love to collect as much music as possible, but this is more than I can bear. And thank you also, Scott, for criticizing the idea of some shared tax on downloads to reimburse artists. Just what we need, another opportunity for the government to decide what art is appropriate.

-- Derek J. Fuchs

While I appreciate the fact that for the first time in decades, the issues of intellectual property are actually the subject of public debate, Scott Matthews' depictions of the current state of affairs completely ignore the fundamentals of copyright law, and his assertions with regard to First Amendment rights are simply not cogent.

The fact is that all of the schema that he derides currently exist in other intellectual property contexts. While none of them are perfect, the fact remains that the cassette-tape surcharge is collected and distributed, and ASCAP and BMI collect performance and broadcast royalties. To do so for file sharing is neither unprecedented, nor unworkable. What's more, absent a complete overhaul of our intellectual property laws, this remains the only workable solution.

Quite simply, copyright never anticipated, and is not prepared to deal with, contemporary technology. It is, both in its assumptions and definitions, intended to deal with print media and the commercial infringement of same. It is simply not equipped to address an individual creating a digitally perfect avatar for individual use. Rather than look honestly at this we have chosen instead to adopt intellectual fictions and Band-Aid solutions that place software under patent law as ersatz "machines" and claims performance as a fixed original. The existing system for which Mr. Matthews cheerleads simply doesn't work, and no amount of social engineering or scolding is going to change that.

As for the First Amendment, it protects the right to expression, nothing more. Mr. Mathews' rather elliptical assertion that failing to adequately compensate creators is tantamount to censorship simply has no rational or legal basis. Free speech is the right to express, not to profit from expression. If the viability of commercial expression were a civil liberties issue, copyright protection would not have been separately established in the first place.

Copyright was established to encourage creation by allowing creators to exclusively exploit the fruits of their labor. This purpose has become completely subordinated to the putative rights of those with the market position to distribute creative works. Far from being a threat to compensation and equity, file sharing and electronic media distribution is the remedy to the inherent disequity that already exists. The potential is here for what is nothing less than a perfect and pure market without the gatekeepers and the profiteers. All we need do is stop kidding ourselves and validating the alarmism of the vested interests and develop a system that promotes it.

-- Jim Dugan

You can rail against peer-to-peer file sharing all you like but, at the end of the day, how are you going to stop it? The RIAA is suing file sharers and yet it's hardly made a dent in file sharing. Just this week the most popular file-sharing program, Kazaa, topped 4.6 million users -- the highest ever. Even if users in the U.S. curtail their file sharing, the RIAA's actions have little effect on the rest of the world. Users outside the U.S. continue to offer files for downloading, while U.S. users continue to download, without fear of lawsuits. At present, peer-to-peer applications are being developed that will hide users' identities or encrypt files. Outlaw peer-to-peer altogether? Even if that were possible, people would continue to share digital content using CD burners, e-mail, newsgroups, private networks, etc. Even if the government decided to clamp down on copyright infringement, how, for example, are they going to stop college kids from burning copies of their (legally purchased) CDs for their friends? Anti-copying measures? They don't work. If a CD can be played, it can be copied. (If necessary, just digitize the analog output from the CD player.) Let's face it, it has simply become too easy to exchange digital content. You can't put the genie back in the bottle. If your livelihood depends on copyright, it might be a good time to think about a new profession.

-- Amanda Gerrish

Why do we have copyright law ? We have copyright law in order to provide one form of incentive for people to publish their work. This is good for society in the long run.

However, the majority of people in society are consumers and not producers of copyrighted works. In essence, in the short run consumers subsidize copyright protection for the few. This is why rights such as fair use and finite copyright terms are a good thing. In return for this subsidy, the public gets certain rights and the author loses certain forms of control over her work.

However, things such as region encoding -- a violation of free trade, among other things -- the use of software licenses that force me to spend twice for a piece of software if I change the amount of memory in my computer too many times, copyright term extensions, all these are an attempt to shift the balance back to the producer in a manner that takes away from the rights enjoyed by those who subsidize the copyright process in the first place.

This process started far before piracy became such a major issue. Content creator, take a look at yourself.

-- Chris Stiles

I think one of the main goals of this lawsuit campaign is to convince the public that online file trading is piracy or theft, and the purpose of the amnesty program is more to cement that idea as a public fact than to actually have people use it.

Most of the items in the mainstream media I've read start with the assumption that file sharing copyrighted material is nothing less than piracy. I think this question is open to debate; we certainly can't rely on the RIAA's definition of piracy (everything is piracy to them). It's a shame there isn't more public discourse about this.

Also, the point is well taken about putting yourself in an actionable position for no good reason. Of course, we should expect nothing less from the RIAA; the record industry has had years of practice producing "onerous" documents. I hope everyone considering the "Clean Slate" program reads this article or something like it.

-- Chris D. Coccio

I applaud and fully support the music industry's filing lawsuits against contemporary music pirates. The music these goons steal is intellectual property--and the composer and performers have every right to profit from their labor and creativity. The hackers are thieves and should face legal charges of theft as well.

-- Dr. Arthur Frederick Ide

As an attorney with IP litigation experience, let me throw in some free legal advice on the RIAA's "Clean Slate" Program. Do NOT ... I repeat, do NOT sign up for this program.

Not only are you signing a document that would become Exhibit A in a criminal proceeding, you would be opening yourself up to numerous civil lawsuits. Every musical recording likely has multiple copyrights associated with it (lyrics, music, performance) and, therefore, multiple copyright owners with the right to sue.

Simply put, signing the Clean Slate program affidavit is a confession under oath that you committed a crime and violated civil statutes under the federal copyright laws. Through the subpoena power, the government or a copyright holder could compel the RIAA to produce your confession for use in a criminal or civil proceeding. There is no assurances of privacy that the RIAA could provide that trump this subpoena power.

Don't be fooled!

-- Brian McQuillen

Salon Staff

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