Boyle, Bay and High Seas Treachery

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Well, I was completely wrong in my last post. The latest You Tube sensation has, by a country mile (40 million downloads in a week) turned out to be a Scottish singer, Susan Boyle. I’m loathe to give the link to this unlikeliest of heroines, but just in case you are not one of the 40 million it’s here. Britain has indeed Got Talent, but it’s what the media industry does with it that concerns me. This morning’s papers are full of the kind of rubbish that makes you think it can’t help but end in tears: Demi Moore Twittered on about crying when she saw Susan; Elaine Page set to duet with her; Susan bound for Hollywood…… the woman seems very nice, but she’s sung one song on a talent show. If subsequent appearances are something of a let-down (and how can she live up to the media orgy of this week?) the TV and newspapers will no doubt turn face in a way which will probably be ugly.

It’s been a funny old week for the media generally. Close behind the Boyle sensation was the Pirate Bay trial. And then there were yet more examples of ‘real’ piracy (can we please stop calling file-sharing by that name?) Hopefully those caught and prosecuted off the coast of Somalia will face much stiffer penalties than the Swedish founders of The Pirate Bay.

The ethics of filesharing and copyright legislation are something of a minefield. Let me say straight away that I’ve been a victim of unauthorised recording. Some of the songs I wrote turned up on internet websites in various places, for which I received no money. Personally, I’m not bothered, in fact I was just flattered that someone likes something I wrote 20 years ago enough to re-record it. Would I have felt that was when I was a near-broke musician? Probably not. But the view of people like Nine Inch Nail‘s Trent Reznor suggests that, increasingly, the ease of digital downloading (together with the historical absence of record companies responsibility for their artists welfare) is leading to the inevitable restructuring of business models. It’s become too easy and convenient to download music than to schlep along to record stores to buy it. So then the only question is whether it’s reasonable to expect it for free, and who could blame a 16 year-old for thinking that must be OK when you can effectively get free, perfectly legal, access to whatever you want to hear from Spotify?

The movie industry will inevitably have to go down the same road and find a way to allow paid-for downloads of the latest film releases. This will inevitably affect cinema attendances (which is why the major distributors are digging their heels in) but will we stop going to the cinema? Hardly, just look at attendances at live gigs.

My belief is that we’re too far down the track of digital = free to turn back now, no matter how heavy-handed the prosecutions. The smart people – like Linus Thorvalds’ Linux software company – find another way to make money from a product that gets given away.

‘Copyright’ was originally just that: the right to make copies of works. Many people feel that the principle of ‘fair-use’ became abused by the publishers and distributors, and this, in turn, made it easy for the Napsters and the Pirate Bays to see themselves in the moral high ground. We’ve had open warfare for the past decade or so, but it’s only a more sophisticated version of the ‘home taping is killing music’ argument (it didn’t by the way).

There is, however, one thing upon which most are agreed. There is little sympathy for media industry folk who bleat about depriving artists of their rights, but adopt a different set of standards when it suits their purposes. If TV, film and record coporations are unanimous about the wrongs of copying their product, why have ITV not sought to catch the people who enabled 40 million people this week to illegally watch Suan Boyle. Getting their show removed from You Tube would have been a consistent response to copyright infringement, but it was never going to happen.

Plus ca change. 50 years after the invention of the Guttenberg printing press was threatening to do for scribes what free downloads are now threatening to do for record companies, Johanes Trithemius, Abbot of Sponheim, wrote a passionate defence against the evils of to mass copying. His thesis, ‘In Praise of Scribes’, argued that we would deprive academic monks of their rights as culture bearers (and indeed their livelihoods) if we allowed limitless copies to be made. His argument might have had more valididty if he hadn’t gone to the Guttenberg press for publication!

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