Copy This Post!

When iJamming went online in 2000, the debate around the ethical and financial issues of downloading, sharing, ripping and burning of music had only just got going. I jumped into the fire with an essay of my own and frequent further posts, essentially arguing that the sharing of musical recordings was nothing new, that you can’t halt the progress of technology even if you are a hardware/software giant like Sony, BMG, Warner Brothers or EMI, and that while record sales might fall into decline, there were plenty other opportunities for artists to earn income from fans and industry alike.

Over five years later, the debate still rages. The following are what I consider the three key (edited) paragraphs of a long, insightful and likely influential cover story from last Sunday’s New York Times magazine, written by Kevin Kelly.

In Mozart’s day, few people ever heard one of his symphonies more than once. With the advent of cheap audio recordings, a barber in Java could listen to them all day long.

But a new regime of digital technology has now disrupted all business models based on mass-produced copies, including individual livelihoods of artists…Entire industries and the fortunes of those working in them are threatened with demise. Newspapers and magazines, Hollywood, record labels, broadcasters and many hard-working and wonderful creative people in those fields have to change the model of how they earn money. Not all will make it.

In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies lose value. They are no longer the basis of wealth. Now relationships, links, connection and sharing are. Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer and engage a work. Authors and artists can make (and have made) their livings selling aspects of their works other than inexpensive copies of them. They can sell performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information, the scarcity of attention (via ads), sponsorship, periodic subscriptions — in short, all the many values that cannot be copied. The cheap copy becomes the “discovery tool” that markets these other intangible valuables. But selling things-that-cannot-be-copied is far from ideal for many creative people. The new model is rife with problems (or opportunities). For one thing, the laws governing creating and rewarding creators still revolve around the now-fragile model of valuable copies.

Kelly’s arguments seem so logical, especially regarding the new business model for the working musician, that I’m tempted to ask, How comes the debate has not moved further forward these last several years?

Except that it has. Kelly’s feature is in fact not about the world of music, but the world of books. (The feature is entitled Scan This Book!) He explains how Google and other companies are busy scanning every single one of the 32 million books ever printed with the explicit intent of making their entire contents available to the whole online world through their search engines. The book author, he suggests, is about to go the way of the music maker: that is to say, his “art” will soon be freely distributed around the world, whether he likes it or not, his royalties will inevitably suffer as a result, and he’d better figure out another way to get paid for his work.

Anyone with an interest in the technology debate should grab all ten pages of this essay off the Times Web Site now; stories older than a week are only available on a fee basis. That is, of course, assuming that the story has not already been copied and pasted into dozens of web sites around the world. Which is the point of Kelly’s story, after all: that you can fight for your copyright all you like, but you can’t halt progress.

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