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Changing of the Guard Brings Copyleft Under Attack

It’s been said that desperate times call for desperate actions, and the last decade or so has certainly been an era of desperation for the old guard in the music biz. Indeed, the havoc the Internet has wrought on the recording industry would’ve been unthinkable back in the mid to late sixties when Jefferson Airplane and other “San Francisco Sound” groups were struggling to wrest control away from the major music labels to bring “free music” to the people.

Record labels become more irrelevant every day. Don’t believe me? Quick, what label releases Lady Gaga’s music? Back in the sixties, every teenager in America could tell you that the Beatles were on Capitol, Dylan and The Byrds were on Columbia, the Airplane on RCA and Sonny and Cher on Atco. Now an artist’s label hardly matters. When all is said and done, all music is on iTunes.


The labels are in trouble not only because we consumers don’t buy records or CDs anymore, but because many artists don’t feel like they need them either. It no longer takes a fancy studio with tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment and highly skilled engineers to record a professional sounding album. Some of the most memorable recorded music of the past few years was recorded by using good mics plugged into a MacBook Pro or Linux system and distributed on personal websites and by Apple.

As we all know, the recording industry, represented by the RIAA, has responded by suing the pants off their own consumers, mostly the parents of teenagers who saw no harm in doing a lot of downloading from peer-to-peer sites, an action that hasn’t exactly made the public empathetic to the recording industry’s plight. As I said, desperate times call for desperate measures, so the record companies shoot themselves in the foot in desperation.

There’s more desperate measures on the way.

On Friday, David Kravets reported on Wired that the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), the folks who collect the licensing fees for about 380,000 songwriters and such, began a fund-raising campaign to go after the copyleft community, specifically the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Public Knowledge, Creative Commons and unnamed “technology companies.”

According to Kravets, in a letter to their members ASCAP said they believe these groups are:

“mobilizing to promote ‘Copyleft’ in order to undermine our ‘Copyright.’ …the truth is these groups simply do not want to pay for the use of our music. Their mission is to spread the word that our music should be free.”

And here I thought that the various copyleft licenses were meant to be tools songwriters could use to protect their work while still sharing their efforts. And I was under the distinct impression that composers were free to choose whether to use a Creative Commons style license or go the traditional route and have outfits like ASCAP or BMI pick up their fees for them. I guess I was wrong.

The movie tycoons, of course, haven’t been as severely hit yet as the music moguls. After all, it still takes millions of dollars to make what you put on the screen look like millions of dollars. And stealing movies online, due to the huge file sizes, isn’t nearly as prevalent as illegal music downloading. But the movie execs have seen what happened to their brothers in the music business, and are determined to get an early start in addressing their potential problem. In other words, they’re going to go ahead and shoot themselves in the foot now, before they get too desperate. After all, that worked really well for the music folks, didn’t it?

According to an article on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s website:

“A Washington, D.C., law firm calling itself the ‘U.S. Copyright Group’ (USCG) has filed ‘John Doe’ lawsuits on behalf of seven filmmakers that implicate well over 14,000 anonymous individuals in alleged unauthorized downloading of independent films, including Far Cry and The Hurt Locker.”

Evidently, the law firm is attempting to lump all 14,000 cases into a single case, thereby depriving the defendants of the opportunity to effectively plead their individual cases. Luckily, EFF, Public Citizen and the American Civil Liberties Union are stepping in to attempt to see justice served.

I wouldn’t worry about any of this too much. It’s only the changing of the guard. Neither the music nor the film industries can stop the inevitable. All they can do is waste a lot of money slowing it down.

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Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux.

2 comments to Changing of the Guard Brings Copyleft Under Attack

  • MOGH

    @Christine Hall

    Christine, I couldn’t agree with you more, I have been thinking the Record and movie folks could have changed old and dated business models years ago.

    One trick they used before the Internet downloading, was when you buy an LP, it included test music like it or not – they made you pay for it.

    People want the music they want, individual songs to play on the many devices available today. The Record folks don’t get it.

    With all the downloading going on you could think they may get a hint for a new business model… selling direct ? Record labels could become stores and distributors to others.

    Christine, what you mentioned about teenagers knowing labels years ago, brings to mind a radio program I would listen to knowing the music they are playing. But even more then that, the radio program was out of New Orleans, “WRNO”, and in the ’70s they had an LP night, playing latest LPs not on the market yet.

    Anyone that was into music then, had reel-to-reels (like me) on and recording. It was the best two hours (as I remember) I spent.

  • Christine

    @MOGH

    I have a lot of fond memories from radio in the sixties and early seventies, back in the days of the “freeform FM” format when DJs played not just the hits, but anything on an album that was good.

    These days, over-the-air radio seems to be a wasteland controlled by out-of-town owners and programmed by consultants.

    Sad.