I was having a spirited online discussion today with a bunch of strangers (as you do). We were talking about something close to our hearts (well, OK, I was tacking madly away from the main point of the conversation...) music, movies, media players, media companies and the very future of our culture.
Along the way someone said that there is nothing inherently evil about DRM (I reminded them of the Sony Rootkit fiasco...). But this got me thinking. What could happen if DRM, Copyright issues and the whole mess was taken to its (ill)logic conclusion?
I realised that the media companies are quickly gaining control over the entire cultural history of the 20th century and a method to control the cultural history (such as it is) of the coming centuries.
My take on the whole thing is that DRM should be avoided like the plague. I do not buy any music that foists DRM on me. Neither do I have an issue with recording my LP's (and ironically some tapes) to digital and listening to them. That's fair use.
For new music though, there are not that many compelling options. Magnatune has been around for a long time and supplies some niche independent music. While Magnatune is one of the oldies at this stage, there are hundreds of sites (niche or otherwise) offering independent music.
Magnatune has an unusual business model. It offers the customer the choice of how much they would like ot pay with the average $5 pre-selected. On average, customers actually pay just short of $9!
Its a discussion for another time, but the salient point is that given the choice, and with regard to music they have sourced, a customer will not only pay for music but pay more than they have to.
These successful distributors all deal with so-called niche music, independent music and pretty much everything that the majors would pass on. Which is a good thing.
Nobody is becoming super-rich from these services but the point is providing distribution channels from a musician to their present and future audience and fans.
The majors steer clear of these services, however, another fine online distributor eMusic has been getting mid-management agreement for deals since it began but as these requests bubble up to higher management they unilaterally get knocked on the head even with so-called 'long-tail' music.
The music industry is not run by or for people who appreciate music. It has one goal only - to make money. They try to achieve this by producing cookie cutter music, blowing with the wind (until we are all sick of the smell) and protecting their back-catalogue with uber-zealousness.
Eventually this will lead to people turning away from the traditional music industry and turning on to the likes of Magnatune, MySpace (who knows..!), YouTube etc. as thier primary source of music - Hallelujah!
Software like Democracy Player, Songbird etc. will help to replace the restrictive Media Players from MS, Apple etc.
But by then it will be too late, our cultural history will be locked away from us forever. If you want to legally access a tune form 1950's you will have to talk to the media companies. If you want to legally watch a Betty Boop cartoon, see reruns of Knight Rider, watch the moon landings - you will have to talk to the big media companies.
These media companies will not be interested in taking to individuals or even special interest groups. There is no way they would bow to pressure to release to the public domain all recordings by a 1930's performer - unless they could release a digitally remastered boxed set and the whole nine yards of coffee table books and all the rest of the tchotchke that make the big media companies think that they define popular culture.
In comparison releasing the recordings of an obscure artist to the public domain would cost too much in lawyers fees and paperwork - its more profitable to leave it to moulder in the archives and eventually (blissfully) require dumping and burning.
Increasingly the media companies are using Copyright, DRM and even the DMCA to lock down all our modern cultural history also through conglomeration of corporate bodies (Time Warner AOL Universal) that leads to the consolidation of scattered music/movies/whatever collections under one corporate heel.
When more and more popular culture comes under the sway of fewer people we get a situation where there is no leverage - one side holds all the cards and will never fold.
These corporations have proven that they do not want to release old recordings / media / whatever (see the Eldred case in the states as an offthetopofmyhead example...) unless they can turn enough of a profit from them.
To labour a point - for a large corporation to do this it involves a lot of outlay - lawyers, marketing, lawyers, remixing, lawyers, distribution, lawyers, marketing, lawyers.... This effectively means that these recordings won't ever be released. The content is actually less than worthless to the conglomerate - the best option for them, from a business perspective (their only perspective) would be to destroy the whole kit and kaboodle.
Lets put this bluntly - the media companies would profit from erasing the cultural history of the 20th Century.
Yes, thats a nightmare scenario, but the facts are diverging in this direction...
What to do?
If a grassroots or even independent operation were allowed access to the collection they could cheaply and effectively distribute it, effectively securing it for future generations - the media companies could even get a kick back based on the distribution numbers -there is a lot of money in that long tail - some sort of licensing deal could be setup with the fees used for something altruistic that the companies would otherwise not pay for...whatever, just thinking of a carrot...
This would allow our generation and the next to continue to remix our cultural leagacy to create its own just as we have - remember there are no new stories just variations on a theme.
Plus it would allow the media conglomerates to do what they do best - make press releases and pay lawyers.
What we are heading for now, I truly believe, is a modern digital library of Alexandria.
Anyway, something I feel strongly about so apologies for the long rant.