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The new war on drugs

The French are set to kick-start the stalled Hadopi piracy laws. Until now, the French government has considered a number of lightweight penalties including a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ rule. It’s probably the equivalent of giving Hannibal Lecter a week of community service. Similarly, revised Australian copyright law will seek to force ISPs to block popular bit torrent hubs.

We’re two decades into the fight against digital piracy. It’s the new war on drugs: expensive and ineffective. But let’s face it, we didn’t build the internet for big business or the law or the government. We built it for ourselves. If anything, we developed it in a way that made it particularly difficult to secure.

Back in the 90s, as file sharing became easier, we viewed major music labels as overweight tourists on half-inflated lilos, drifting happily toward the edge of Niagara Falls. A few years later we enjoyed the last few moments as the cumbersome beasts flapped and splashed, desperately swimming against the current.

The music industry is the prototype of failure in digital distribution.

At that time, I had a foot on both sides of the great divide. I was talking with labels, preaching compromise. I had plenty of allies within their ranks but the execs generally scoffed at the idea of a market-wide pricing of $1 per song. Slowed by their cumbersome operating costs and divided by territorial rights, no accord could be reached.

Rather than join the new world, the dinosaurs launched a series of defensive manoeuvres. This in essence became the ultimate example of their lack of understanding. Encrypting a file is not a punishment for the web community; it’s like giving a child a puzzle. Eyes light up, puzzle is solved, high-fives all round.

That’s why the music industry is the prototype of failure in digital distribution. In its defence, it really didn’t see it coming. The only problem with that excuse is the rest of us saw it coming a mile off. If any good came from their suffering, it was the opportunity for other distributors of media to learn from their mistakes.

This all sounds fine to web purist but things get muddled when the seeders and leechers of the world are asked to justify why they deprive artists of remuneration. You won’t find any that shrug their shoulders and admit to being thieves. There’s always a brilliant justification.

The first reason is the concept of the internet as a free dimension never intended to be policed in any way, but the beautiful idea of an uncontrolled and uncensored entity works fine until the entity happens to become the most powerful thing in existence.

The second is the purposeful dethroning of major corporations, usually based on what was viewed as absurd pricing, but if you’re a pragmatist, you can calculate the old cost of a CD to arrive at a figure of approximately three cents per song per play.

The third is that through open-source code and independent distribution, the community follows the web’s mandate by offering free services and products. The issue here is that few bands will ever accumulate what a midweight developer earns in one year. They are likely to either spend or owe that much by the end of their illustrious career.

We’ll quite happily pay for can of beans, but we steal from our musical heroes. That’s the bit that doesn’t make sense.

The validity of each justification has an Achilles heel in the form of artist royalties, or the lack of them. The drive toward subscription-based services has its weaknesses but it’s a case of ‘careful what you wish for’. Carrots will dangle and exclusive deals will be done (expect plenty of these shenanigans as Apple pushes its subscription service) but the subscription model’s high volume and low cost is essentially what we fought for. If unlimited music isn’t worth $10 a month, what is?

The pirates will continue to be either argumentative or defiant when faced with anti-piracy legislation. Even if authorities pressure the ISPs to help in the battle, the community will become increasingly rebellious. Once you have community-controlled ISPs, the war is over.

To the purists, this all sounds great. We won. Job done.

Our only issue is the ongoing friendly fire incident we try to ignore, or justify with our excuses. We’ll quite happily pay for can of beans, but we steal from our musical heroes. That’s the bit that doesn’t make sense.

I’m not talking about the artists involved with Tidal, who all boarded a sinking ship as they sipped from champagne flutes. I’m talking about your favourite bands (the ones Kanye West hasn’t heard of).

For the influencers, this is unfinished business because we successfully changed the business model for an entire industry. We asked for better prices and easier access. Now that we have it, we still won’t pay. So who’s the villain now?

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Glenn Mitchell
G-Funk was raised on the Gold Coast where he probably should have stayed, surfing, drinking beer and romancing tanned women. His career began when he appeared in a TV ad with Richard Wilkins. He then worked in music TV, appearing on ABC's Recovery as 'the guy in the tape room'. He has since written shows for the ABC, Foxtel and SBS, and now writes screenplays, fiction and blogs while working as a digital consultant.