Whenever he takes a break from drumming for math-rock heroes Alright The Captain, you’ll find Ash West-Mullen redefining what a ‘singer/songwriter’ can sound like with his startingly original project, Mender. Here’s Ash with his views on the questions regarding ownership and rights that the digital age has posed to the music industry, and society as a whole…
For better or for worse, the Internet has changed the world. It has changed the way we communicate globally as a species, the way in which we exchange goods for money and share ideas, opinions, solidarity and hatred alike. It is this sense of sharing that I want to scrutinize in this article, particularly the incongruous definitions of sharing by those who seek the free movement of information and those who seek to make profit from information.
…a question of ownership
Indulge me for a moment; go grab a pen and paper and draw me a picture. It doesn’t have to be a work of art. It could be a stick man. It could be your best impression of the Mona Lisa. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the picture is yours. No one else’s. Ask yourself a question; what is that picture worth to you? The answer is probably “nothing” or “I don’t know?! You asked me to draw it!” Now imagine that someone claimed to have drawn it themselves. Would you feel slightly cheated? If someone traced it, how would you feel about that? What if someone took a photo of that picture and uploaded it to the Internet. This entirely separate artefact resembles your initial product but has now taken on a new form. How do these different incarnations of your picture affect its initial value to both you and the counterfeiter? Or to put it another way, what is it worth and to whom?
To further illustrate the subjectivity of value, now imagine that your picture is discovered by some enthusiastic arts-dealer who believes that it is a work of art and could be sold, perhaps for millions. I imagine that suddenly your own opinion of the picture’s worth has changed and more so, your reaction to the person who copied your picture!
Replace your picture from the analogy above with a DVD copy of the latest summer blockbuster; what is it worth and to whom? In the UK it is probably worth around £15<£20 at any retail outlet and some measure of social kudos to the casual consumer. Just like the various copies of your picture, any of us can rip the DVD onto a hard drive, producing in turn a non-tangible copy of the disc image. Does this copy carry the same worth as its physical origin? Once it has been compressed, re-formatted, seeded and downloaded multiple times, is it even identifiable as the same thing as the DVD it originated from?
Technology has given rise to new kinds of media that can transverse the globe in an instant; untouchable ghosts; ethereal forms that ride the ether; the literal disembodiment of a film, picture or piece of music from its hither-to necessary physical original. All manner of objects from comics to musical instruments now have emergent digital counterparts, devoid of physicality and freely available at the click of a button but what worth do these objects possess without the tactile ritual of interaction? Is the almost ceremonial practice of sliding out a vinyl record from its sleeve and placing the needle carefully upon it comparable to the innocuous click and drag it takes to play and MP3 or .avi file? To what extent should this difference be reflected in the way we engage with copyright law and the question of ownership?
…a question of rights
While the production companies, record labels and publishers reel from the sudden cyber sea change, desperately clawing at the heels of innovation, they struggle to come to terms with their own increasing obsolescence as distributors in the new digital market. They are forced to tread uncharted territory, paranoid and unstable, aggressing with reams of red tape in the absence of any substantial modification to the archaic legislation that protects them.
The corporate infrastructure of modern industry is not built to abide the freedom afforded by these new media formats that spread like a technological epidemic through cables and modems. In the name of intellectual property rights, the industry has waged an endless tirade of tedious court cases, voicing its discontent with righteous indignation. But for many people, there seems to be a fundamental failure to address how innovation might be changing the way in which media should be distributed and how ownership should be viewed. Should we not be re-evaluating these over-saturated industries in the wake of the qualitative value of digital art?
You may have heard rumblings in the US about SOPA. Congress wants to change the way the Internet works in conjunction with intellectual property rights and copyright law and SOPA is their secret weapon. Its a bit like trying to kill off a couple of insurrectionists by dropping an A-Bomb on a an entire country. There were numerous online appeals, petitions and most recently, the blackout of sites such as Wikipedia, Reddit and even the US Google URL, all aiming to provoke public response towards this heavy handed legislation and promote awareness about its potential consequences for the world over.
SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) is essentially a Draconian knee-jerk reaction to the current rise in so-called copy-right infringement on the Internet. The purpose of the act is supposedly to protect the intellectual property of American companies whose products are compromised by the increasingly limitless network of computers we call the Web but the worry is that it will provide the US a platform to dictate the nature of the Internet, much of which is stored on servers on American soil and therefore subject to US legislation.
So do you trust the US to appropriately censor the Internet? Or do you feel that capitalism is a worthy spring-board from which to launch an assault on the freedom information? In regards to the question of ownership, yes there are indeed people who abuse the industry by illegally filming low-quality screeners, printing them onto DVD’s and quite literally, stealing but tackling this problem with SOPA is like removing a splinter with a lump hammer. While I can think of a bucket-load of scenarios where file sharing is useful and nondetrimental to industry, I can think of fewer scenarios where Internet users should be lawfully arrested and sued for thousands of dollars because they allegedly pose a significant financial threat and loss of revenue to a distributor.
The fact is, we are facing one of the most radical changes to public freedom on the Internet since its inception and you can bet your Demonoid user account that it won’t be the last! Industry should be reflecting, reassessing and evolving, not becoming some pseudo-righteous cyber cop, persecuting its own real investors. Believe me when I say that we could be entering an age of Internet censorship that will ban most of your favourite web sites and radically change your online experience. Upon entering a particular URL you could be confronted by a page displaying the words “This website has been filtered by the US Government.” Fact. In the not-too-distant future, sharing a popular image or video on Facebook could become copyright infringement. In many ways we don’t appreciate the freedom we are afforded in our online existence. Julian Assange thought that information should be shared and he was demonised and slandered. Is that the sign of legitimate ethical censorship or paranoid corporate cowardice?
…we call it file sharing, they call it Piracy
You’ve gotta feel bad for these corporate fat cats. Their lives revolve around investment and return yet technology has a penchant for developing faster than business can keep up. The curve of technological advancement in this ever-changing, ever-growing, gloablized cultural tapestry has been steeper in the last hundred years than it has been in the last three thousand years, pitting market economy against exponential growth and the acute incline in the availability of knowledge. How are they supposed to make money and protect the sanctity of copyright law when consumers don’t even need to pay for the initial purchase of goods anymore?!
As a musician, I can empathise with this struggle to sell a product in an oversaturated market but I don’t kid myself that I can change the way consumption has evolved. The Internet has shaved hours off of the collective concentration span, constituting a need for consumers to be rigorously exposed to a product in order for them to invest in it emotionally or financially. The corporate model therefore necessitates that the variety, choices or options available to consumers be narrower and highly concentrated. The result of which, is a barrage of repetitive, generic and often banal media forms that scream at us from every screen, speaker and bill board that we pass. There has to be a more dynamic way of approaching distribution?!
So those who seek to make money will always try to adapt, likewise for those who seek to avoid spending it. If the lump-hammer of legislation that is SOPA comes into effect, it will make online life very different for a lot of people but for those who poses the will-power and the know-how, the perceived seedy under-belly of internet piracy will no doubt continue and there will always be those who see nothing wrong with what they see as file sharing as opposed to piracy. For the majority of Internet users, the goal will be to edge towards something safer, more predictable and less offensive, whilst for the more liberal minded online users, there will be a continual struggle to keep information flowing and fight off the kind of censorship that seeks to service only the rich. I will draw this article to a close with one final statement (I can’t remember exactly where I found it) which was popularised through numerous cartoon incarnations and pictographs throughout recent Internet history and pretty much sums up this discussion, for me, almost irrevocably:
“Theft removes the original. Copyright Infringement copies the original and sells it for profit. File Sharing copies the original and uploads it for free. Piracy is stealing shit on the high seas.”
I challenge those who are ‘pro SOPA’ to acknowledge that change is unavoidable. Technology grows because of ideas, not just because of money, and with new ideas come new frontiers and new negotiations. I also challenge the public to defend our right to an open and interesting World Wide Web. Pluralism is the new colonialism. Let’s make freedom of information the New World Order, after all, it’s Google that famously say, “you can make money without doing evil”.
By Ash West-Mullen (AKA Mender)