things are going to slide
slide in all directions
won't be nothing
nothing you can measure anymore
the blizzard, the blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and has overturned the order of the soul
Granted, the old music industry - or, "the devil's riding crop" (see verse 2 of that song), now wielded with such enthusiasm by the RIAA - was never a great defender of the "order of the soul," but you get the idea. It's all sliding. The RIAA, record companies, distributors, artists... everybody knows (thanks once again to L. Cohen).
Now, perhaps the advent of free music is just the harbinger of a glorious new era dawning, one in which nothing costs anything. If so, fabulous. But, absent the full-blown arrival of that blessed event, the rules of capitalism still hold sway. Every other transaction in the chain (studio time, fees for the engineer, producer, and musicians, gear, electric bills, food, parking, parking tickets, car detailing, tarot card readings) all are still measurable the old-fashioned way.
This being the case, my first reaction upon becoming fully cognizant of this disorienting state of affairs (say, circa 2000) was one of consternation. Thieves! How dare they! That's my intellectual property their stealing! How do they expect us to make a living?! Etc. I've driven many a pleasant conversation into awkward silence upon learning that my interlocutor had just the other day downloaded my entire catalogue via Limewire. "Really!? Gee thanks. Say, I hear you sell
Many years ago, I was a
Come to think of it, there was a fourth group, comprised of exactly one person: the station-master inside the ticket booth down the hall. One afternoon, after having been hammering away for a while at some pointless, endless, drony, open-tuning guitar dirge, I began to notice many of the people passing by were smiling at me. Some were chuckling. I began to wonder what was up. I also noticed that that man in the booth had for some time been broadcasting a message over the station's PA system. Since the PA system was just as lousy as my french, I had understood nothing. Finally, one of the passersby approached me.
"Excusez-moi," he said. "Do you understand what he is saying?"
"No, not a word."
"He is saying that your song is very very boring, so please play a different one." Then, just as I was about to thank him for enlightening me, he added his own commentary:
"And may I say also that your costume needs pressing." I'm sure it did.
Anyway, I would argue that P2P networks are like the Paris Metro, or the choice street corner, with the users of those networks falling into the same three groups. I would no more expect every person who downloads my music on Limewire to pay for it than I would every passing commuter in that tunnel. Some are in a hurry. No doubt many agree with the station-master and just don't like what they hear. Others just don't happen to have any spare change at the moment. Is it reasonable to tell those people to cover their ears as they pass by? Does it make sense to banish them from the tunnel? Would any sane person advocate barring the doors of the Metro? Should we serve them all with subpoenas? Blow up the whole system? Of course not. And yet that is exactly what the RIAA and its lawyers would have us do.
Anyone encountering a busker in a subway tunnel knows that the music they're hearing could just as easily be heard for free as not. Why is that? Is it because the listener has found a new way to "steal" it without getting caught? No, it is because the music is - a priori, de facto - free. In the confines of the Metro, the music is soundwaves floating through a public space, offered up to the passing crowds, no strings attached. I can no more force you pay for those soundwaves than I can make you pay for the air they're floating through, or than two people standing in a crowd can charge anyone else who might have overheard their conversation.
And so it is in the case of file-sharing over P2P networks. In my view (that of a person trying to make a living creating music intended for other humans to hear), your downloading my song is functionally the same thing as hearing it in a subway tunnel. All of those zeros and ones that make up a digital file are analogous (reversing the relationship) to those soundwaves. The air in the tunnel is the software (the codec, the P2P program it travels through, your operating system). The floor, ceiling, walls, escalators, and doors of the Metro are hardware (servers, switches, modems, hard-drives).
The last word of the previous paragraph brings us to the "problem" (and to why this comparison is "functionally" rather than "exactly" the same). In the subway, once you've heard me play the song, you then continue on your merry way, carrying with you only a memory of the event. In the case of the downloaded song, the "memory" you carry with you is not really a memory at all. It is the thing itself, a perfect copy (more or less, depending on what codec you're using). If you want to hear it again, you do not have to return to the Metro, find me, and hope that I play it again. Whenever you want, you can hear it just the way you heard it the first time. So can an unlimited number of others, for free. You get to keep it.
That copy is what economists call a non-excludable, intangible, non-rival good (in plain english, something you can't hold in your hands, which can be used simultaneously by many people who cannot be kept from using it by the fact of their not having paid for it). The RIAA says that this "good" is (and must always be) "excludable". It "demands that knowledge and culture be rationed by the ability to pay. Alternative traditional forms, made newly viable by the technology of interconnection, comprising voluntary associations of those who create and those who support, must be forced into unequal competition with ownership's overwhelmingly powerful systems of mass communication" (Eben Moglen,
For the busker, the free offer of music does not mean that payment is not possible (or desirable). On the contrary, the fact of its being offered freely creates the very conditions that make payment possible. Given the choice between someone who throws me a coin and someone who does not, I'll take the former. But, in keeping with the spirit in which the music offered, that payment must be voluntary, non-coerced. And this is what sticks in the throat of the RIAA. They have lost the ability to coerce payment. The nature of the medium has made it so. Moreover, this same medium has also taken from them the ability to coerce artists. We no longer need their permission to make a living. Because we now have at our disposal the mother of all busking spots: everywhere, or here.