Saturday 14 March 2009

London Alternative Copyright Choir

Traditional copyright exists in order to protect the rights of creators. The idea is that if they know their work will be protected and they can profit from it, there will be an incentive for them to create new works. This in turn means that consumers or audiences have a wide range of works to choose from. We all benefit from the cultural richness of a diverse range of artists creating a large number of works.

That's a nice theory, and an admirable goal. But in real life, things don't always work smoothly. There are several problems with the laws of copyright as they exist today, and with the business models that emerged around them in the 20th century.

In the music world one of the biggest problems is that of getting your music heard. It's not enough to write music and then leave it in a desk drawer where nobody will hear it, or not if you want to make a living. Before mass communications were around, the way to get your music heard was to perform it as much as possible and try to get your friends to do the same. The printing press and increasing literacy changed that a fair amount, but performance was still a very important factor. Audio recording and playback technology, paired with the broadcasting possibilities of radio and television, changed it profoundly. It was possible, if you could raise the funds, to have your music played to hundreds, thousands, even millions of people at once. It was possible to play your music once, twice, ten times until you got it nearly perfect, and then sell a duplicate of that nearly perfect recording without having to do it again. Word of mouth became less important than airtime.

High-quality recording equipment was still relatively expensive in the 20th century. To have a song recorded was simply beyond the means of most musicians. So a system emerged where publishers and recording companies would enter into a partnership with composers and performers. The creators of the music would give up some control over their work in exchange for money, and the recording companies would worry about the details of recording equipment and distribution of the finished product.

Again, this is alright in theory. But what happened in practise was this: recording technology got cheaper. Mass distribution got cheaper. Recording companies got better at marketing, and at making money. It was very difficult to get your music heard in the mass media unless you had a deal with a recording company, and very difficult to get a deal with a recording company at all, and even then you might not make much money unless your track was a hit. Depending on the details of the contract you might not make money even if your track was very successful. And the mass media was the only one where you were likely to make significant amounts of money. The widespread availability of cheap recorded music meant that live performances weren't so easy to fix any more. Copyright became something the recording companies would defend in order to preserve their profits, but which didn't necessarily benefit artists, and which actually reduced the average audience's access to a variety of music. If you wanted something different from the offerings of the mainstream media, you had to go out of your way to find it.

This, too, is changing: technology has moved on. The biggest change is that the mass media is becoming more and more audience-controlled. I'm writing this to post on a website; I'm willing to bet that many of the people reading it will have websites or blogs of their own. People are creating, for the sake of it. Some may get paid in advertising revenue or support themselves through other means, but many don't bother. Some of the best bloggers out there have day jobs. A significant portion of people are starting to question or outright ignore what the mainstream media says, whether that's in journalism or visual art or written fiction or music. The thresholds to mass broadcasting are much lower than they have been before, and a lot of us have something to say.

What that means, in practical terms, is that we're back to word-of-mouth again, but in a much different environment than the one where personal, face-to-face contact was the main form of communication. Word of mouth has gone global. And it's noisy.

For creators this has some interesting implications. Broadcasting is cheaper than it has ever been, but so is copy&paste. Artists who try to keep their copyrighted works out of the public domain have only limited success in doing so: do a Google image search for 'Gary Larson' if you don't believe me. Before the printing press if you wrote or told a story and someone stole it and claimed it as their own, there wasn't a lot you could do, but you could try to tell the same story more than they'd have a chance to, and probably still make some profit. Mass duplication makes that a technology race as well a social skills race, and ultimately the choice to say anything at all is also an acceptance of the risk that someone else might try to steal it.

The challenges for the music industry are similar to those for the written word; the technology is different, but not far behind. The technology that lets me record a music rehearsal at a reasonable quality and put it online, should I wish, costs less than a month's rent. The expertise required to do so really well is something I can learn. The equipment to create a CD-quality recording, isn't much more expensive than what I've got. But once it's out there, I have very little control: I can't easily dictate whether it is duplicated or not. I certainly can't afford legal fees against someone who attempts to profit from my own work. Participation is an act of trust.

We need new business models to deal with this environment.

We can lean toward more control, more stringent laws to prevent the theft and piracy of intellectual property. That way lies stifling bureaucracy and an endless arms race against what technology can do. And as shown, it doesn't always benefit artists or audiences. If I hear something I like I'm going to try to show my friends by whatever technology I have available; making that illegal doesn't benefit anyone.

Alternately we can tread the careful path toward increased openness and trust. We can build communities where intellectual property rights are respected, but not in a punitive manner: where people create for the sake of creating, not for the reward, but where reward is still possible.

The London Alternative Copyright Choir exists to explore some of the alternative business models available, at least as far as choral music is concerned. Our concert, "Songs of Freedom", will be this Friday, 20th March, at St John on Bethnal Green Church.

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