Re: When is an MP3 file like a lighthouse?

Date: Tue Oct 23 2001 - 19:01:16 MDT

Alex forwards:

I have a few problems with this. I see some bias and selectivity
in the analysis.

> What this means is not just that the RIAA
> is applying makeup to the corpse of the music industry as we've known
> it. In fact, it heralds an even larger change about how all content is
> created and distributed, and raises serious questions as to whether
> content creators (such as the author of this essay) will ever be
> compensated for our work.

It's not at all clear how the current content wars will play out. It's a
battle and the front lines shift back and forth. There are persistent
rumors that popular CDs will come out next year that can't be ripped.
These CDs won't play on computer CD players, only on audio players.
A few CDs have come out in this format already, as a trial.

Obviously there will be opposition to such a change by consumers,
and it will somewhat limit the market for CDs which can be sold in
this format, but the advantages in making them harder to pirate may
be motivation enough for the manufacturers. If this happens, all the
music on Napster and its replacements will be old stuff, and current
hits won't be available.

So it's a little too soon to assume that the music industry as we know
it is a corpse.

> What there may not be is enough revenue to
> support the publishers of that content in addition to the authors,
> which helps explain why the RIAA is so eager to thwart digital
> distribution. When an ecosystem undergoes severe environmental
> changes, certain organisms that were previously essential - like the
> cyanobacteria that originally converted carbon dioxide to oxygen, or
> the record companies' A&R men - may recede to minor ecological niches.

This blithely assumes that the only negative consequences will be on the
people everyone loves to hate, the marketers and publishers. Somehow the
negative impact on the artists is overlooked here. It would not suit
the political purpose of this essay to dwell on reduced revenues to
the creative people who make music and other content.

> Other textbook public goods are
> national defense, mosquito control, and public radio.

Why the adjective "public" in public radio? Is there something about
public radio which makes it a public good while private radio is not?
Not that I can see. Both are non-excludable and non-rival, within a
certain area. Why then would the author have mentioned public radio
while failing to describe ordinary radio and television as public
goods? Again I think it is because it wants to lure us into accepting
a certain model of how to think of this problem.

The difference between public radio and other radio is that public
radio is government funded. Taxes are taken from people who have no
interest whatsoever in public radio and used to pay for these broadcasts.
With private radio and TV on the other hand, funding is provided via

The author does not want us to think that content could be funded by
commercials. He wants us to think that it should be funded by government.
That's my interpretation.

> -----------+--------------------+--------------------------------
> RIVAL | car, Walkman | unmanaged fishing rights
> -----------+--------------------+--------------------------------
> NONRIVAL | movie in a movie | lighthouses, national defense,
> | theater, concert | mosquito control
> | in a large hall |

Of course another entire category of public goods which has been around
for centuries is intellectual property: patents, trademarks, copyright.
Again it is a curious lapse that the author does not mention these,
and I believe it is because it doesn't fit into the message he is trying
to send.

> If content is becoming a pure public good, it will necessitate a
> radical rethinking of the recording industry's claim that copying
> content is stealing. We as a society react very differently toward the
> unpaid use of rival versus nonrival goods. Think of the punishment
> inflicted, for example, on those who steal cars versus those who
> listen to public radio without contributing to the fund drives.

Here we see how smart he was not to mention existing forms of IP.
Someone who listens to public radio without contributing is at worst
a leech. Compare it to someone who steals patented technology, or who
fraudulently uses someone else's trademark, or republishes a copyrighted
novel without a license. Most people will think of these activities
much less favorably than the guy who doesn't pay PBS.

> The lawyers representing the recording and movie industry are well
> aware of the threat to their business models of digital content, and
> they believe they have already developed the answer:
> encryption. Encryption represents the music industry's last, best hope
> of maintaining their product as excludable. Why they are wrong, and
> content protection is doomed to failure, will have to wait for the
> next essay.

I will look forward to seeing that. But so far I am not impressed with
the evenhandedness of his discussion.


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