Digital Rights And The Elusive Path To Righteousness

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

Matthew 5:6

Kevin Kelly (executive editor of Wired) put out a brilliant write up on his blog last week entitled Better Than Free. In it, he breaks down the hard realities of traditionally copyrighted works spreading on the "Internet copy machine" as he calls it. The harsh reality is undeniable: works can be copied on the Internet. And as such, they are inherently free.

copy-1 Kevin then goes on to talk about intangibles that surround the consumption of copyrighted works that we are willing to pay for because these intangibles simply can’t be replicated and distributed freely. He calls these intangibles "generatives" and he outlines eight of them. "Immediaacy","personalization" and "findability" provide new value that we otherwise didn’t think much of in the pre-Internet Interstate distribution days.

It’s an eye-opening article but it somehow leaves me feeling like something’s still broken and unfixable, and so we’re left scrounging for other, more ephemeral sources of value.

Can we all agree on this single premise:

Taking possession of someone else’s creative work and calling it your own is wrong.

Now I’m fully aware that in this new world of bits streaming across the wire, "taking possession" is very much an outdated and loaded term, but even if we sterilize the definitions at play, the question still stands: is it wrong?

Is it wrong to come across a new band on Pitchfork, type their name into Isohunt, and within an hour or so, have that album on your hard drive and iPod? The chorus of anti-DRM advocates is strong out there. Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow comes to mind as someone who’s shed light on just how ridiculous DRM really is. How useless, futile and unduly cumbersome it is. DRM is going away. Amazon MP3 is the future and we’re all heading there.

Still, that same question lingers: is it wrong? If an artist has made clear that their work is not free, is it wrong to just take it? Is it doubly wrong to give a copy to a friend of yours?

guilt Kevin’s article is bold because it’s acknowledging certain realities and instead looking constructively to other avenues of sustainability. For me, it still leaves some unnerving questions unanswered. Before this sea change, was the entire music distribution industry rife with false value? Was it a matter of time before they got theirs for charging us $16 for a CD? Did we buy vinyl and CD’s all these years because we didn’t have other, cheaper means to gain "ownership?" In other words, were we cornered into this unfair corner of capitalism? Or did we actually believe in the system? Are we simply hostages that have been freed? Or is there something inherently wrong with how we’re behaving today?

I’m not entirely certain. Hopefully I or someone else will have a moment of enlightenment and help clarify whether we’re just a bunch of jerks stealing music or if the music industry’s party – a party where they grossly over-charged for admission – is just over.

Ok, enough questions. Anybody have some answers?

1 Comment Digital Rights And The Elusive Path To Righteousness

  1. Christopher Fahey

    I have an answer, of sorts: The very idea that you can even call a piece of music your own, as if you “own” it, is flawed and unnatural. Ownership of music is a phenomenon that didn’t exist a century ago, and is about to return to that condition. Ownership of music is a phenomenon tied inextricably to the now-dead 20th century industry of mass-producing physical objects on which music was recorded. The only reason we (both consumers and artists) even think that “owning” music is rational is because we’ve spent our lives under the influence of that weird industry.
    When you write “Did we buy vinyl and CD’s all these years because we didn’t have other, cheaper means to gain “ownership?””, I think you put your finger right on it. The place to focus, then, is on how musicians can exist without selling recorded music. The answer lies, in part, in pre-20th century history, before music could be bought and sold.
    It’s time to figure out how to charge for something else besides charging for the music itself. This is what Kelly’s article is really about.
    Taking possession of someone else’s creative work and calling it your own is wrong.
    I would agree with this only insofar as (a) taking credit as the work’s creator is wrong, and (b) using the music to sell your own product or service without the creator’s permission is wrong. Enjoying the product as an individual consumer, on your own terms without paying the creator money, however, is not wrong. The “deal” that you fear you are violating by downloading copyrighted music (the deal that the artist and the label owns the music and is selling not just the physical ability to listen to it, but the very right to listen to it) was a false deal to begin with. All they were selling was the hard copy, not the intellectual property.
    If an artist really wants to have strict economic control over their music, they must refuse to release it digitally or physically and must exclusively perform it live for audiences willing to pay for it. This is, of course, ridiculous if you interpret it literally. But for many artists, this is virtually how they survive, using their recorded music as a promotional tool for where the real money lies: live gigs, t-shirts and souvenirs, endorsements, appearances, and licensing of their music for other products and venues.
    I’ve addressed this on my own blog, I hope you can check it out:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *