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Intellectual Property Rights

by Russell Blatcher


The World Wide Web is already an endless, if unmapped wonderland, and a matchless research resource. The proliferation of Peer to Peer Applications has added a new dimension to it, but raises many issues about the ownership of music and video.

For those who don’t know (the rest please forgive me), a peer to peer network, in essence, allows individuals connected to the internet to search part of other users’ filestores for music, pictures, video, in fact for any kind of file, which can then be downloaded to their computer. They in turn grant access to some of their own files to the outside world. This works best for those with broadband access, because it is faster in both directions (download and upload). But it is perfectly manageable for those with normal 56K modems, as long as they are prepared to leave their connection on for long periods (typically overnight). Obviously this depends upon both the kind of contract they have with their Internet Service Provider, and on their (or others’) need to access the phone-line. Because of the sheer size of the on-line community, the number of files that are available in this way is immense.

Some of these applications abuse the access granted to your computer. This is mainly via Spyware – code which surreptitiously collects information about you for it’s real customers, advertisers. AdAware (free down load from Lavasoft.com) is an essential tool for revealing such software, whatever it’s source.

Once the technical matters are settled, we are left with only questions of Philosophy and Morality. As you doubtless know, Napster was harried and pursued through the American courts, and prevented from operating.

I have no idea how much material was available from Napster in it’s heyday. This, I suspect is the issue for the record companies: Just how easy is it now for the average computer user to download CDs? Finding what you want and successfully downloading it are rather different matters, since the popular items are in huge demand. However the peer-to-peer applications supply queuing mechanisms, which is why a broadband connection or overnight connections are essential.

Assuming someone does manage to download an album from the Internet, what will they then do? Most users now have the necessary hardware and software to create music CDs that they can then play on any normal stereo. What they don’t have is the packaging. While there are many Internet sites, which provide high quality copies of Bootleg Albums covers, I know of none that offer the covers of commercially available albums, of sufficient resolution to print out. If you try printing the thumbnail size JPGs or GIFs, which sites like Amazon use in their adverts, you will only see the pixels. Of course you can create your own covers, and there are many applications you can use to do this.

However the end product is always going to be limited by the available printers. If I understand the nature of Western culture at all, the average consumer is not going to be satisfied with a homemade CD-R. Like most ‘products’ the essence lies not in the content, but in the packaging.

So what is the threat to record company profits? If these are falling, it is not because of the Internet, but because of the product they are offering. If rock and roll and modern pop begins in the mid fifties they now have nearly fifty years worth of material, and the one thing the record companies have always been good at is eating their own young. Now they can recycle a vast store of material to create tepid versions of (they hope) forgotten hits. This is no new thing. Peter Sellers long ago introduced a song with the words, “This is an obscure folk song I found hidden away at the top of the American hit parade.” (One other immortal line from that masterpiece: “..From his shirt tail to his trousers was the well known Cumberland Gap” - Suddenly It’s Folk Song, released on The Best Of Sellers, 1958).

The terrifying thing is that this has worked as well as it has. One great virtue of the availability of on-line music is the ability to seek out the originals for yourself, and discover just how pale the copies sound next to their templates. How often these days is a single or album release a cultural event in itself, as for example some Bob Dylan or David Bowie albums were?

The underlying issue, as ever is money. The user can buy blank CD-Rs for a few pence so he knows that the raw material costs of the commercially released CD is virtually nil. The entire selling price goes on the music alone. Once this is separated from the medium on which it has been recorded (via MP3 and on line transmission) the record company has truly lost control of it, and arguments about copyright are completely academic.

The record companies have followed a similar line of argument to those other masters of patent and price controls the drug companies: “we have to use the retail receipts to fund our outlay on research and development.” In the case of music, this attempt to present themselves as cultural benefactors is utterly mendacious. Their interference in the development of new artists has always corrupted that process.

A performer or composer in any genre should be able to follow a natural path of development, presenting their work in live performance, building an audience appropriate to their significance and talent. Instead, now more than ever, the recording companies step in at the very first stage, choosing their ‘artists’ on totally commercial grounds (however comically misguided). They thrust them straight at a mass audience by manipulating their allies the broadcast media. Whatever the outcome, success or failure, the performer is removed from their original environment and audience, either to the arena stages or the dole queue.

The audition process for young people now being used on Pop Idols and its successors is a paradigm of this process. There is no middle way for the artist; it is either complete success or complete failure. Those with enough talent merely to sing in the local pub or club are tempted to overreach themselves, and, having ‘failed’ in the eyes of the cynical industry jury, will never be satisfied with that again. The crazy thing about this is that no one can predict what kind of performer will be popular. This is particularly apparent in comedy. The BBC after a long history of shows which no media figure would have picked for success (Goons, Monty Python, League of Gentlemen, Phoenix Nights), now realise that they cannot predict public tastes. Just listen to some of the stuff they broadcast on Radio 4. They can’t tell what works, so they give anyone a chance, though much of it is utterly dire.

The idealised model for the artist in society described above is in essence what is called the folk process. You may think that this is bound to be eroded by modern technology. However, I would suggest that the World Wide Web could offer a means by which the folk process can continue. Any one can publish their work on it. The difference from LPs, CDs, radio and television is that no one can control it. If they can’t control it, they can’t make money from it. Profit is the poison in all art forms, not technology. Let them sell computers, TVs and the rest, and leave music for artists to share with their peers.

One particular aspect of this issue, of great relevance to the on-line Bob Dylan community, is the potential to make the vast body of Dylan Bootlegs more widely available. This would irritate not only Dylan and Sony, but also those who relish having something which others cannot get. For anyone outside the magic circle of collectors it is more difficult now than ever to get hold of older bootlegs, since the proliferation of CDRs has meant that the bootleg operators make much shorter runs of disks because they know they will themselves be bootlegged almost instaneously. Possession of such material should not depend on whom you happen to know.

 

Peter Sellers             Bob Dylan

 
 
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