David Lowrey is a semi-legendary musician in one of techdom’s most beloved genres, indie rock. He sits on Groupon’s advisory board. He’s neither a rich rock star nor a spokesman for the RIAA. As a university professor, he is more a beneficiary of what Larry Lessig calls “the academic patronage system” than of copyright. In other words, you’d expect David Lowrey to be one for “sticking it to the man.” Yet last week, he wrote a 3800-word masterpiece about the dire state of musical artists in the digital age and the moral compromises that got us there.
As everyone involved with music knows by now, Lowery’s “Letter to Emily White” was originally occasioned by a blog post by an intern of that name at National Public Radio, who admitted to being a big music fan and possessing 11,000 tracks of digital music but only having paid for less than 2% of them (which puts her well below the generally-accepted figure of 5%). It went viral online and got mentions in the New York Times as well as other major media and blogosphere outlets.
Paul Resnikoff in Digital Music News said it best, in perhaps the most cogent piece of analysis I’ve ever read from him:
Our digital innocence just died … after a decade of drunken digitalia, this is the hangover that finally throbs, is finally faced with Monday morning, finally stares in the mirror and admits there’s a problem. And condenses everything into a detailed ‘moment of clarity’.
Over the years, I have written occasionally about the “race to the bottom,” in which the price of content is tending inexorably towards zero. The massive amount of free and illegal content available now, coupled with legal content services’ needs to “compete with free,” has led to more and more legal content offers for less and less money. Emily White’s frank admission shows that, for a growing number of young people, the race to the bottom in music is over, and musicians and songwriters have lost.
I won’t comment on Lowrey’s piece per se, except to recommend strongly that you read it. And I will say that as I read more of the posts on his blog, The Trichordist (by other authors as well as Lowrey himself), I found some attitudes about intellectual property that I felt were a little extreme and/or ignorant in their own ways.
Instead, I want to focus on the range of comments people have posted about Lowrey’s Letter to Emily, particularly the negative ones. The Trichordist curates comments by hand (and has been “accused” of favoring positive comments heavily as they cope with comment volumes that are orders of magnitude higher than usual), but they have appeared unfiltered on other sites — thousands of them.
Some of the negative comments are sober economic arguments that conclude with “This is just the way it is, and we can’t change it, so we all just have to adapt,” citing principles such as supply and demand, value migration, or cost of goods sold. While I disagree with the “we can’t change it” part, the economics are hard to argue with.
Yet the bulk of the negative comments are remarkable for their defensive attitudes, as expressed through smugness, arrogance, misinformation, rationalizations, and most telling of all, outright hostility towards Lowery. Many of them remind me of the rhetoric of right-wing political extremists when backed into a corner. Apart from the ad hominem attacks against Lowrey, the negative comments fall roughly into the following buckets:
- Economic rationalization (record companies): The record companies rip artists off anyway. Lowrey rips this one apart in his piece.
- Economic rationalizations (artists): Musicians can make money touring instead. Ditto. (Did the people who wrote these comments actually read Lowrey’s piece?)
- Economic rationalization (users): Emily is just a poor young intern and isn’t able to pay for that music anyway. See below on the perceived value of music.
- Legal rationalization: What Emily did was “fair use.” When your prom date gives you a “present” of 15GB worth of digital music, it’s probably not fair use. (Of course, that this is even a question is a problem with fair use itself, but that’s another subject.)
- Terminological distractions: So-called piracy is not “stealing” because the original remains once you have copied it. As even TechDirt’s Mike Masnick points out, what you call it doesn’t matter; it’s copyright infringement, which is against the law.
- Exceptions that prove the rule: So-and-so has figured out how to thrive under the new system, so there must be ways to do it. This one is Masnick’s specialité de la Maison. He seeks out these examples in order to encourage others to follow them. That’s fine, but they continue to be few and far between.
- Market research cherry-picking: I saw a study that says that piracy actually benefits music sales and/or the RIAA/MPAA’s piracy studies are biased. Let’s agree that no study of the economic effects of copyright infringement is both methodologically unassailable and unbiased, and perhaps that the “real” effect may be unmeasurable. But if we’re going to cite studies, we should at least look at all of them instead of putting up strawmen for the purpose of knocking them down. I have looked at all of the studies (and not just those about music) and found that those that claim economic damage from infringement outweigh those that claim economic benefit by a wide margin, even when studies commissioned by the RIAA or MPAA are ignored.
I am also reminded of a conversation that took place at the Copyright and Technology conference last week in London. The eminent copyright litigator Andrew Bridges echoed the common copyleft refrain that “copyright infringement is not a problem” except perhaps that “some companies are losing money.” He also asserted that the sky-high statutory damages under United States law act as an effective deterrent to copyright infringement because they scare people.
I disagreed with both statements. The case of Emily White is the best counter-argument I could have made to both points if I had known about it at the time. For every Joel Tenenbaum or Jammie Thomas-Rasset who makes headlines getting nailed for copyright infringement (and getting Harvard Law professors to defend them), there are millions of Emily Whites who don’t, and millions more who have no idea about copyright infringement, let alone statutory damages.
However, none of these arguments addresses the real problem. The real problem is that the value that people perceive in music has virtually disappeared. As Jaron Lanier pointed out in his book You Are Not a Gadget and subsequent writings, there is a profound cost to society as the perceived value of original content goes to zero. And the cost goes well beyond questions of whether there is “enough creative content” if artists can’t make livings.
Lowrey’s Letter to Emily is more about morals and ethics than about the inherent value of content. The problem is that simply preaching ethics to people in order to get them to change their behavior doesn’t work. At best, as Ben Sisario points out in the New York Times, this gets musicians to the status of charity recipients.
A more recent post on The Trichordist, by Lowrey’s Camper Van Beethoven bandmate Jonathan Segel, focuses exclusively on perceived value — after providing an illuminating history of musicians’ compensation since Beethoven. Killer quote:
What is happening here seems to be a willful ignorance that the inherent value is still there, not being paid for in the distribution of additional copies. These same individuals would certainly make the claim that they are copying the music in order to listen to it … but are refusing to admit the relevance of the social contract that says that that inherent value is what is used in the exchange rate with monetary currency. I see this as a hypocrisy: either music has no value at all, (in which case why copy it to begin with?), or it has value and the copiers are refusing to admit that it does, simply because it is a copy.
Once this behavior becomes normal — i.e. becomes standard practice for the Emily Whites of the world — then the taint of hypocrisy disappears. Once that happens, concern over the value of content evaporates, as then does the value itself.
The time for questioning whether or not this is a problem is over. The proper question is how to solve it.