Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Artists Create Awesome Content...and Everyone Else Gets Rich?

A few weeks ago, London-based Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) posted an engaging op-ed on the challenges that face creators given the influential "open rights movement" permeating today's internet culture. Using the widespread backlash against now-aborted anti-piracy legislation SOPA and PIPA as a central theme, writer Danuta Kean laments how those in protest "became the first generation in history whose rebellion left corporations and venture capitalists clapping their hands in glee."

Wikipedia, Google, Facebook, and at least 40 other highly trafficked internet companies took public stands against the proposed pieces of legislation. Some of these companies, including Wikipedia, Reddit and Mozilla, joined thousands of other websites across the internet in a coordinated "blackout" on January 18, 2012, denying access to their content for the day in protest of what they call "internet censorship". While this act was certainly a legitimate expression of first amendment rights, it's hard not to see the irony that was inherent in their actions. As ALCS deputy chief executive Barbara Hayes notes, "where is this freedom they’re all talking about, if they can pull the plug on their service when they can’t get what they want for free?"

The main issue here is copyright. Ever since Napster first took off at the turn of the 20th century, artists, publishers and owners of creative content have witnessed their copyrights being illegally distributed en masse across the web. Not only has this completely undermined the exclusive right to distribution protected by U.S. Copyright Law, but it has also generated an ecosystem in which everyone makes money off of this content except for the content owners themselves. Traffickers are the obvious beneficiaries, generating revenue through "paid-for premium subscriptions that enable faster downloading; and display advertising – often supplied through Google Ads – which appears as content downloads" (check out some examples of ads alongside music from Tom Waits). Much of this money then goes to infrastructure providers of servers, bandwidth, computer equipment and software - another beneficiary in the food chain.  But there are many, many others too, including "global corporations – computer manufacturers and service providers and venture capitalists – because users of stolen content need hardware, mp3 players, ebook readers, computers, and broadband services to download and use stolen books, music and films. Financial sector corporations benefit too because traffickers have to pay for servers and bandwidth. And for that they need revenue raised through advertising or subscriptions, and to process that revenue they need payment services. None of these corporations may actively target trafficking sites for revenue, but they do profit from them."

Kean goes on to expose several other noteworthy considerations. She references David Lowery's "utter bemusement at a generation happy to shell out money for hardware and gadgets or for Fair Trade coffee, but not to pay the artists whose work they profess to love." She observes that "the more Northern Californian VCs can drive down the value of content the higher the return on their investment in things that deliver content in one way or another." But she also offers up several suggestions for how content owners can fight back.

Is it really too much to ask that the content driving so much joy and so much business be given the respect it deserves? The fight is far from over so be sure to do your part. Spread the word. Lobby your elected officials. Educate your friends. Support a FAIR and open internet.

Read "The Big Online Rip-Off" from ALCS here (it's a great read):

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