I wasn't disappointed by the recent Supreme Court ruling that allowed content owners to sue file trading networks for failure to do enough to protect their copyrights. That shouldn't surprise anyone who caught my post last week where I defended content owners against the "fair use" militias who want to force them not to package their products in ways that would help to prevent file trading in the first place (namely, with Digital Rights Management (DRM) that restricts the way media can be used).
This time, though, I want to explain why it's so important to defend content owners' rights to protect their media, by means both technological and legal. It all comes down to a future where artists don't rely as much on big media companies to distribute and produce their works, and where you, me, and the guys at the Pizza Hut down the street can make professional-quality media that we can sell to 6 billion potential consumers around the world.
I've been a fan of Thievery Corporation since a CD store in Dallas, Texas included "Sounds From the Thievery Hi-Fi" in its selection of the week. My brand of fandom, however, was to buy their albums while knowing next to nothing about the people making the music (I guess I'm more "fan" than "fanatic"), so I read with interest yesterday's article on ZDNet about musicians' response to the Supreme Court ruling.
Thievery Corporation created their own label (Eighteenth Street Lounge Music) in order to avoid having to sign with a major studio, which could have been difficult given the "mere" 150,000 - 250,000 records they sell each year. ESL welcomed the ruling because it was having an effect on sales, and as Matt Whittington, label manager at ESL, noted: "If we lose 30 percent, that's a big deal."
Thievery is no pop band, and I would have a hard time seeing them reaching the popularity of a U2 or Coldplay. Even so, I love their music, and am glad they managed to find a way to continue making it through non-traditional channels. Go back 20 years, though, and the band likely wouldn't have been able to afford starting the company because productions costs were so high.
Today, professional-grade digital recording equipment is well within the range of lots of people, and music labels / recording studios are proliferating. It's not uncommon for popular niche bands, like Thievery Corporation, to start their own label, thus providing a platform for other bands in similar genres to distribute their own music.
Distribution costs, however, are still a large barrier to entry. It costs money to stamp CDs and ship them to distributors. Digital distribution over the internet could theoretically change all that, provided the problem of "trading" in pirated music can be solved. The only way to solve it, in my opinion, is through the use of strong Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology, and that will only work if certain elements in society don't convince governments to prevent them from doing that.
We're standing on the threshold of a new era. The doors of creativity will be thrown open and anyone can make their own music/movies/books/etc. in the comfort of their home and sell it in a global marketplace to anyone in the world. Standing in the way are a bunch of people who can't see past the BIG MEDIA COMPANIES who currently control media distribution and insist, on the basis of novel interpretations of "fair use" principles, that content companies not be allowed to use the DRM that would make that digital future happen.
I want a world where people can make money from distributing a "mere" 5,000 records a year. Today, that means defending the rights of "big media companies" to protect their content however they choose to protect it. I do that because in defending the big media companies, I'm defending the guy in his basement music studio who will make the "niche" music I'll listen to - and collect - in the future.