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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

You can't get blood out of a turnip

The battle lines were drawn.

On one side of the Federal court room sat a team of corporate attorneys representing the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). All four of the major recording companies (aka the "Copyright Cartel") were represented by the RIAA: Warner Music Group Corp., Vivendi SA's Universal Music Group, EMI Group PLC and Sony Corp.'s Sony Music Entertainment. The team of corporate lawyers were in hot pursuit of a modern-day pirate, and they had the blood of revenge in their sights.

On the other side of the court room sat Jammie Thomas-Rasset, a 32 year-old single mom with four children. She works for an Indian tribe in Minnesota.

The Federal court was in session regarding Ms. Thomas-Rasset who was cited for willful infringement of the recording industry's copyrights by posting the music on the popular file-sharing site Kazaa. She was specifically charged on illegally downloading 24 songs.

On Thursday June 18th the federal court found Thomas-Rasset guilty of illegally downloading music from the Internet and fined her $1.9 million dollars. That's $80,000 per song for 24 songs. (although RIAA claims to have found over 1, 700 songs on her computer hard drive back in 2005)

After the court hearing Thomas-Rasset protested defiantly: "There's no way they're ever going to get that. You can't get blood out of a turnip."

You might think that I'm on the side of the corporate suits, that as a musician and composer that I would subscribe lock-stock-and-barrel to the concept of copyright protection for music and recordings in its current form. But I'm not sure that I do. After all, copyright is a Western invention, and large parts of the world (India, China, Russia, etc.), don't play by our rules anyway. Frankly, I don't see that it is easy or rational to assign long-term ownership to musical ideas, and then put in place a Baroque infrastructure to track usage and charge money for accessing it. Do we want our courts making decisions on matters of musical originality, and who heard what when and where? Music is a reusable commodity, not unlike software that makes the rounds in the not-for-profit Open Source software development movement. It's ubiquitous, like breathing air.

It's not that I'm against professional musicians and composers earning income for their honest work, but I have to wonder if Mafia tactics are the best way to achieve that result. After all, isn't the ultimate goal to make a wide-variety music available to people on a broad basis, and then let the public decide what is sustainable, interesting, and worthy of our attention? The broad public space where this Darwin-like weeding-out process occurs should be just that: public.

The industry that has evolved around commercial music has always subscribed to faulty and corrupt business models. They would like to call the shots, and let recording executives determine what music gets recorded and distributed. That has been true regardless of the media and distribution channels employed - be it phonograph records, CDs, or online digital downloads via the Internet. It is a system that does not favor minority viewpoints and niche communities.

I am beginning to see small cracks in the current system, and the commercial recording industry is running scared. Frankly, I am not loosing any sleep over Ms. Thomas-Rasset in Minnesota illegally downloading"Let's Wait Awhile" by Janet Jackson, or the song "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls. I could care less.

And it does not scare me that my music will be ripped off by "pirates." Although I have never earned a penny from my music, every month more than 1,800 people in China download my recordings for free using the music sharing site Baidu. I'm happy about that. I want my music to be heard. I didn't write it so that the record executive could make big bucks, not that they would want it since it clearly has no viability as a mass-market commercial product. The copyright law does not serve me or put food on the table. It is an archaic and obsolete system instituted long ago to control the flow of information and public art in ways that were never intended.

I don't have any easy solutions, but the public is clamoring for change. For example what if a site like iTunes adopted a free-market model, not unlike eBay, where people could bid on streaming music they wanted to hear in real-time and the price was market-driven and variable? We need to think outside of the boom-box, and beyond the iPod.

Perhaps it is time to de-criminalize listening to music, and look for other ways to compensate our artists. After all, to quote Jammie Thomas-Rasset, "You can't get blood out of a turnip."