Saving Pandora

Today I received an email from concerning a recent decision by the Copyright Royalty Board in Washington, DC to almost triple the licensing fees for Internet radio sites like Pandora. According to the email, “the new royalty rates are irrationally high, more than four times what satellite radio pays and broadcast radio doesn’t pay these at all”(emphasis added). The email then points out how these sharp increases in fees will effectively strangle Internet radio companies because it artificially inflates the cost of doing business to levels far above what such businesses can expect to afford.

For those of you unfamiliar with Pandora, it’s a great service that I highly recommend to any fan of music. You go to the Pandora site, enter the name of a musician or song, and Pandora creates a custom radio station that plays music that Pandora thinks you will enjoy based upon a sophisticated analysis of structural properties of the input music or the typical music produced by the input musician. It’s a cool and innovative idea that has allowed people like me to found all sorts of interesting musicians that they would have never encountered otherwise.

So you can see why this news about the decision of the Copyright Royalty Board on behalf of the recording industry is highly upsetting to me. I encourage people to visit the SaveNetRadio website and contact their representatives in government to try to apply some popular pressure to counter this decision and save internet radio stations like Pandora.

But there’s more to this decision that gets under my skin than just the potential loss of a valued service provider. You see, I have a big problem with the notions of copyright, patent, trademark, etc and all the other things that are increasingly referred to as intellectual property.

Which is highly ironic and an endless source of cognitive dissonance for me since I write software for a living at a company that sells its software and fiercely guards its so-called intellectual property rights.

So what exactly is a copyright?

A copyright is a set of laws passed by governments to restrict the use of particular expressions of an idea or information. Likewise, if you research patent, trademark, etc. on Wikipedia or Google, you’ll find that they are similar sets of laws that also restrict the usage of ideas and information. Each of these ideas applies to a different domain and has different alleged goals, but they all share the common effects of restricting our freedoms while allowing certain individuals or groups to extort money for lengthy if not indefinite periods without engaging in productive labor.

I will henceforth refer to these ideas collectively as information monopolies and the laws associated with them as information monopoly laws. The reason I wish to refrain from using the phrases intellectual property and intellectual property rights is because words have connotations and the words property and rights are heavily charged in a way that makes these phrases deceitful and hurtful to the cause of freedom and to the social usefulness of the various industries that have been tainted by information monopolies. To call a copyright on a song intellectual property is to suggest either an absurdity or to make a very bad analogy. Obviously, intellectual property cannot be thought of as real tangible property. You cannot hold a song in your hand. When someone makes a copy of an MP3 or copies the score to a song, the holder of the song’s copyright doesn’t lose the song. To the extent that the holder of the song’s copyright could ever be described as possessing the song, the holder can still be said to possess the song even after the copier makes a copy. This is true from the very first copy up to the seven-hundredth copy, ad nauseum.

So why would someone wish to refer to a copyright on a song as an intellectual property right when the concept fits so poorly? The reason lies in the charged term property. The notion of property rights in most Western cultures runs very deep. Property rights have their foundation in the naturally occurring idea that people should be able to do what they wish with things that they possess. Once you bring the idea of property into the mix, you can start using even more sharply charged words. For example, you can describe my sharing a piece of useful software with a friend as piracy and thus equate it with imagery of barbaric men stealing wealth, cutting throats, and raping woman. It should be obvious that these two acts are very different.

Let us not contribute to the propaganda of software giants, the recording industry, and Hollywood by using their extremely warped terminology. To use the phrase intellectual property serves only to muddy the waters and pollute or kill the discourse on how better to achieve the noble goals to which copyright, trademark, and patent are outdated and failed solutions.

To engage in this conversation, we need to examine why governments invented information monopolies in the first place. The modern copyright was invented in the 1700’s as an attempt to encourage creators to create books, music, and works of art for the public good. The idea was that giving a creator a monopoly on his creation for a limited period of time would provide an incentive for creators to share their creations with the public. The patent was invented as a similar effort to encourage inventors to share new ideas with the public without fear of loss of credit or loss of any competitive advantage gained by the invention. Thus, we can see that information monopoly laws were created out of a desire to encourage the share of information for the public good.

To that end, modern information monopoly laws fail horribly in an era where information can be inexpensively copied and where powerful industries have developed that usually force creators to sign over their information monopolies in exchange for distribution of their creations to the public. People like to share things that they enjoy or find beneficial with their friends and family. To promote such sharing is good and healthy. Instead, information monopoly laws make this act of sharing a crime and slander it with terms like piracy and theft. Rather than enforcing the natural idea that a person should receive a compensation commensurate with the labor that he puts forth, information monopoly laws suggest the bizarre idea that a creator should somehow be entitled to live off society like a parasite because they created something that many people enjoy or use. Even if this pernicious idea were sound, the creator rarely sees the profits from their creations in modern society because corporations generally make them sell the rights to most or all of the profits in exchange for mass distribution.

So how can we encourage people to share their creations without placing huge restrictions on freedom and promoting antisocial behavior?

For starters, we should observe that people have been creating and inventing things since the dawn of history, while information monopoly laws are a modern idea conceived and refined over the law few centuries. No matter whether we are examining the artist, the software developer, the scientist, or the inventor, most creators are truly driven to create by something deep within their own personality. Artists want to express themselves. Scientists want to know how things work. Programmers like to write code. They would do so even if society did not pay them for their works. In fact when it comes to art, many people would agree that intrinsic motivations such as the satisfaction derived from expression or the pride of accomplishment are far superior to extrinsic motivations like money in motivating truly great works of art. It is almost a truism that an artist driven by profit instead of the need to express makes poor art.

Given this natural tendency for creators to create and share their creativity with others, I submit that we have really proposed the wrong question. We really have no need to encourage creators to share their creations with society for the public good. They will tend to do so naturally. The real questions for us to ask are how to better facilitate their sharing things with others and how best to ensure that creators have time to create.

There are many intriguing suggestions and answers to these questions. But we will never consider the alternatives and experience the benefits of a new approach until people stop thinking inside the narrow confines defined by those who seek to control and exploit how we share information with one another.

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1 Comment

  1. I mostly agree with this line of rant. I do feel that, in a market-based economy such as ours, patent laws serve a purpose to drive innovation. But in many ways they are abused (particularly pharmaceuticals). I would definitely agree that the mechanisms currently in place have, generally, failed – the music industry most notoriously. Musicians that create music that people want to hear can make lots of money by putting on concerts, and many do. And the success of concerts is assisted by promoting the music, which is abetted by widely distributing that music for free (which is why struggling bands rejoice when they start getting national radio play). The artists that do nothing but collect royalties for income are, as you aptly put, parasites. I think, in fact, that elimination of music royalties and copyrights would help to democratize the industry and afford lots of independent producers (folks at home who have a computer and mid-range recording equipment and mixing software) the ability to attract talent and make the recording industry much more competitive – which is supposed to be a goal of a market economy, right? Remove barriers to entry/exit/participation in the market to improve competition and then let the consumers (aka “market forces”) decide… I am, personally, still split regarding software. I think it is important to protect one’s ability to market and profit from personal innovation in the industry – at least in a market-based economy. Otherwise you are reducing some people’s ability to succeed in that type of economy. How to protect that, however, is hard to perfect. I see the benefit and the general good afforded by free and open-source software. But I also feel that someone who creates a new and innovative piece of software (or a new use for the personal computer) should be allowed the opportunity to use their innovation to succeed in an entrepreneurial sense. And patent laws at least attempt to do this… though their effectiveness is arguable. Your point about art and artists and motivations was right on the money, but perhaps falls short when describing “inventors and innovators”. The latter category of folk are often driven by the goal of financial independence – not the need for personal expression.

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