Google versus the BPI - whose side are you on?
Image: CC-AT Flickr: digika
The notion that the copyright industries' war on file-sharing would eventually rise to the Google level of abstraction used to be a sort of joke. It was the kind of thing the owners of torrent search sites (and before them, LimeWire and Gnutella nodes) said as an extreme way of showing how silly the whole idea was that file-sharing could be stamped out by suing people. It was the equivalent in airport terms of saying, "What are they going to do? Have us all fly naked?"
This week, it came true. You can see why: the British Phonographic Institute's annual report cites research it commissioned from Harris Interactive showing that 58 percent of "illegal downloaders" used Google to find free music. (Of course, all free music is not unauthorized copies of music, but we'll get to that in a minute.)
The rise of Google in particular (it has something like 90 percent of the UK market, somewhat less in the US) and search engines in general as the main gateway through which people access the Internet made it I think inevitable that at some point the company would become a focus for the music industry. And Google is responding, announcing on December 2 that it would favour authorized content in its search listings and prevent "terms closely related with piracy" from appearing in AutoComplete.
Is this censorship? Perhaps, but I find it hard to get too excited about, partly because AutoComplete is the annoying boor who's always finishing my sentences wrongly, partly because having to type "torrent" doesn't seem like much of a hardship, and partly because I don't believe this action will make much of a difference. Still, as Google's design shifts more toward the mass market, such subtle changes will create ever-larger effects.
I would be profoundly against demonizing file-sharing technology by making it technically impossible to use Google to find torrent/cyber locker/forum sites—because such sites are used for many other things that have nothing to do with distributing music—but that's not what's being talked about here. It's worth noting, however, that this is (yet another) example of Google's double standards when it comes to copyright. Obliging the music industry's request costs them very little and also creates the opportunity to nudge its own YouTube a little further up the listings. Compare and contrast, however, to the company's protracted legal battle over its having digitized and made publicly available millions of books without the consent of the rights holders.
If I were the music industry I think I'd be generally encouraged by the BPI's report. It shows that paid, authorized downloads are really beginning to take off; digital now accounts for nearly 25 percent of UK record industry revenues. Harris Interactive found that approximately 7.7 million people in the UK continue to download music "illegally". Jupiter Research estimated the foregone revenues at £219 million. The BPI's arithmetic estimates that paid, authorized downloads represent about a quarter of all downloads. Seems to me that's all moving in the right direction - without, mind you, assistance from the draconian Digital Economy Act.
The report also notes the rise of unauthorized, low-cost pay sites that siphon traffic away from authorized pay services. These are, to my view, the equivalent of selling counterfeit CDs, and I have no problem with regarding them as legitimately lost sales or seeing them shut down.
Is the BPI's glass half-empty or half-full? I think it's filling up, just like we told them it would. They are progressively competing successfully with free, and they'd be a lot further along that path if they had started sooner.
As a former full-time musician with many friends still in the trade, it's hard to argue that encouraging people towards services that pay the artist at the expense of those that don't is a bad principle. What I really care about is that it should be as easy to find Andy Cohen playing "Oh, Glory" as it is to find Lady Gaga singing anything. And that's an area where the Internet is the best hope for parity we've ever had; as a folksinger friend of mine said a couple of years back, "The music business never did anything for us."
I've been visiting Cohen this week, and he's been explicating the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies' structure with the music business as gesellschaft (society) versus folk music as community (gemeinschaft)
"Society has rules, communities have customs," he said last night. "When a dispute over customs has to be adjudicated, that's the border of society." Playing music for money comes under society's rules - that is, copyright. But for Cohen, a professional musician for more than 40 years with multiple CDs, music is community.
We've been driving around Memphis visiting his friends, all of whom play themselves, some easily, some with difficulty. Music is as much a part of their active lives as breathing. This is a fundamental disconnect from the music industry, which sees us all as consumers and every unpaid experience of music as a lost sale, This is what "sharing music" really means: playing and singing together - wherever.
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