The Cavalier Attitude of Youth and Their Free Stuff.

Posted on January 23, 2013


Rex at savage minds has put together one of the most articulate arguments about digital copying and open access I have seen, in response to a very poor opinion piece by Rob Weir at Inside Higher Education:

“In his article, Weir argues that downloading JSTOR articles is theft. Downloading and sharing articles, or movies, or books may have detrimental effects on the people who own and create those products, but it is demonstrably not theft. Theft of a physical object — for instance, a bank robbery — denies the former owner of that object the possession and enjoyment of the object. Copying articles does not. That is what makes digital objects like PDFs of journal articles so awesome. They enable sharing. This is obviously, transparently, not theft.

To see this simple fact, imagine we had a magical remote control. You pointed it at a physical object, pressed a button, and a perfect copy of that object was made. Now let’s imagine you went into a bank, made a copy of a twenty dollar bill and then left the bank with your copy of the twenty dollar bill and left the original with the bank. The original is still sitting there in the bank. Who in their right mind could call this theft? Certainly not the government, which charged Swartz with various forms of fraud, but not with theft. Because. He. Didn’t. Steal. Anything.

Having a magic remote control that duplicates money (and sofas, and foie gras, and Xboxes) does not make someone a thief. But it would totally screw with the global economy. Furniture makers would hand-carve exquisite chairs and then lock them away in high-security facilities, charging enormous sums of money to let someone duplicate them with a magic remote control. Because after that guy takes his chair home and his friends admire (and duplicate (but not steal) it) that chair maker isn’t going to make another red cent off of that chair. But then again, what would he need money for?”

I love this because Rex deconstructs years of the movie and musics industries attempts to link copying with crimes such as theft. You know what I am talking about, all those commercials saying things like, “you would not steal a car“.  My only problem with the piece is that Rex falls into the same trap as Rob Weir, the independent artist trap:

“One result of this digital plenty is the development of a certain consumerist attitude which smacks of a vulgar sense of entitlement: who cares who makes this stuff? Who cares whether or not they can make a living? I just want to download my free stuff now. And if someone won’t let me — like because they are independent singer-songwriter — then they must be The Enemy.

Rob Weir is right to take issue with this sort of attitude, and to be bothered by the fact that it’s increasingly common amongst college students who are digital natives. But Aaron Swartz was a creator of technology, not just a consumer of it. And he was nothing if not principled. Just because some people want stuff for free doesn’t mean that all people who want to free stuff are bad.”

That was in reference to Weir’s statement:

Alas, many young people don’t distinguish between “freeing” and “free.” Many of my undergrads think nearly all information should come at no cost – free online education, free movies, free music, free software, free video games…. Many justify this as Swartz did: that the value of ideas and culture is artificially inflated by info robber barons.

They’re happy to out the villains: entrenched university administrations, Hollywood producers, Netflix, the Big Three record labels, Amazon, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sega…. I recently had a student pulled from my class and arrested for illegal music downloading. He was considerably less worried than Swartz and pronounced, “I fundamentally don’t believe anyone should ever have to pay for music.” This, mind you, after I shared tales of folk musicians and independent artists that can’t live by their art unless they can sell it.

I have a real problem with this independent artists fallacy. Let’s look at how the music industry has changed in the last few years. I remember 10 years ago people were selling 1 million albums a day in the US, today the top GLOBAL album is a little over 100k for the week (it is only half way through the week). Now look at the top 40 highest grossing musicians for 2012, 35 million after taxes and fees. Forbes has a slightly different list with Dr. Dre making 110 million (pre-tax, management fees, etc. ). Not band for poor album sales.

Yes, but that works for the top musics but what about those poor independent folk musicians and independent artists, the ones Rob is so concerned about? Well, look at the first list of money making artists, number 40 on that list made 5 million and number one made 35million. The 40th spot makes 14% of of the first. Extrapolate that out and the 80th probably makes 700k, the 120th makes 100k. Now it might be an exponential curve so on the long tail you could have 1000 bands/solo acts making 100k but the economics are not there to support but a handful of bands. The sad truth is that 99% of bands never make more than minimum wage for the amount of time they put into music. This is true even when album sales were good:

Number of album titles released in 2002 in the USA alone: 33,443

Average sales (9,291)

44% of Major Record label releases did not sell more than 1000

25,138 albums did not sell more than 1000

359 albums sold more than 250,000 albums accounting for 37.8% of sales

What the music industry does not tell you is that they operate on the assumption that they sign 20 bands and 19 of them will not make any money. Even if independent folk musicians and independent artists collect all the money themselves (you know, not going into the hands of evil music execs.) it does not matter because there is not enough money for most of them to survive. 30,000 + albums and only 25% make more than 1000 sales, 1% sell more than 100,000, the economics are not there AND HAVE NEVER BEEN THERE. Yes, we can all name our favorite indie band that made it but at the same time think of every band you or your friends or family have been in that did not make it. I am going to bet it is a very big number against a very small one.

So now that I have killed off the idea of poor independent folk lets talk about that “dog and those meddling kids” with their contempt for paying for things i.e. who Rob hates so much.  First, the question needs to be asked is when was the last time you paid your calligrapher? No, I am being 100% serious here. When was the last time you paid your calligrapher? If your like 99.99999999999999999999999% of the world the answer would be never. “What do you mean you expect me to pay for letters?” Well, in some cases large companies do still pay a handful of calligraphers to create special fonts for them but the majority of us get our fonts for free. Remember in the good old days when kings could not read or write and they paid someone to write down what they said? (I hope you don’t actually remember but you do please contact me about your secret of living hundreds of years).  I know what your thinking, “wait just a minute, calligraphers writing stuff down and making new fonts are two different jobs, your comparing apples and oranges”.  Well, at one point in time their job entailed doing both,  but then annoying things like public education, typewriters, and literacy got in the way. Now most people can write down what they want to say. What happened with calligraphers? They adopted, they took part of what they do, that can not be replace with that silly thing call public education, and made it into a career, specialty writing.

Back to the top 40 money making musicians of 2012, you see names like U2 (2nd), Bon Jovi (7th), and Celine Dion (8th). They has not made new albums in years BUT listen to how they make their money:

“U2’s monumental 360° tour finally wrapped in 2011 with a $91.5 million Boxscore for the year, including a return trek through North America originally scheduled for 2010 but postponed due to Bono’s back surgery. Fewer than 10% of the tickets had to be refunded, and those returns were quickly scooped up. The total Boxscore tally of $736 million stands as an amazing record, and the attendance of 7.3 million concert-goers (another record) led to merchandise sales approaching $50 million, according to Billboard estimates (but not included in calculating the Money Makers tally). Merch sales and fan club revenue were maximized under synergies created through the band’s long-term, multirights deal with Live Nation, and the 360° tour marked an impressive testament to the ability of both sides to deliver. U2 also sold a significant amount of recorded content, including 1.4 million digital tracks, since the tour drew fans’ attention to catalog favorites. Combining digital and physical units, however, U2 moved the least number of albums among the top 10 Money Makers. Today’s music business is all about the live thing, and U2 stands high on the mountaintop in that regard.”

Dr. Dre on Forbes list, he made 100 million of that from selling a headphone business. Musicians have changed how they make money, they adopted to their circumstances. People adopt and change to their circumstances and have been for thousands of years.

Now let us imagine that 150 years ago we said public education, great idea, but wait those people who make a living writing letters for others. We can not put them out of work, doing what they have always done. Lets scrap that. Go back a few years before that and make a law that says you can not write words out because someone owns the copywriter to letters.  Would we have Shakespeare? Would we have Mark Twain, or Beyonce? Depends if Disney could extend copyright out even further,  I think not (remember its lifetime of the author plus 70 years) e.g Starwars will probably be under copyright till next century. All artists and writers have built upon the previous generation, it is the natural order of things. When youth refuse to pay for digital music they are simply following the natural order of the world. Things and concepts become obsolete and are replaced as people adopt, just look at musicians who are still make as much money as ever. However, we have serious warped the natural order of things. We have launched inter-generational war and it is taking lives (Arron) and making criminals of the youth, as Rob so dismisses as the youths fault.  We now allow the dead to hold onto their works longer then when they were alive to the determent of future generations.
Is the process of forward progress easy? NO. Is these process pretty? God, NO. People lose jobs, lives are ruined, change occurs. Remember when you had to have people input punch cards into computers? That job no longer exists. Remember when you had people pick your cotton for life because you owned them? That no longer happens. Yes, there are winners and there are losers with progress but by ensuring that we lock away our creative ideas IN THE SAME FORM that it has always been in from our future generations we are only trading short term gains for long term loss.
Posted in: Publishing