For some time now the web/technology lobby has been arguing that copyright and other forms of intellectual property rights are stifling innovation. And if you don’t actually think about it you might agree. I mean it sound sort of like the argument against government over regulation. Having to get permission from all those IP owners. And then having to pay them…
But is this really true?
No and the Evidence is right in front of us.
Let’s start with the easiest of these dubious claims.
One of the most common arguments about innovation and copyrights concerns music copyrights. In particular it is often argued that copyrights are inhibiting innovation in the music tech space. The idea is that sites that ignore copyright like The Pirate Bay provide a much better service than the legitimate music sites. Never mind that these sites out-sleaze the record labels by paying nothing to the artists. Magazines like Forbes hail them as hubs of innovation! “Piracy is a service problem” the magazine states.
Here is Google’s Sergey Brin making the same argument:
“I haven’t tried it for many years but when you go on a pirate website, you choose what you like; it downloads to the device of your choice and it will just work – and then when you have to jump through all these hoops [to buy legitimate content], the walls created are disincentives for people to buy,” he said. **
And yes if you don’t think about it very hard this seems to ring true. Until you actually engage your neurons.
Are file-sharing sites really better than legitimate music sites like iTunes? Are file sharing sites really hubs of innovation? Do they really provide consumers with a better service? I mean you can test this in your own living room.
And we did. We put the Trichordist interns* to work. We had a race. I was to legally download “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga and the interns were supposed to illegally download it. I beat them both times. The first time using iTunes and my iPhone and the second time using my MacBook and Amazon MP3 store. Both times I won the race and both times I had the song in less than one minute and thirty seconds.
We tried the same thing with a much more obscure song. “Swim” by The Glands. Again I won handily. Actually the interns couldn’t even find the album version of “Swim”. About ten minutes later they found a legitimate free live version, giving lie to the notion that File-sharing/BitTorrent provides a distribution service for obscure and independent artists.
I was intrigued by the fact that the obscure yet critically acclaimed Glands were not to be found on the illegal sites. I started going through my own catalogue and discovered many of the rare Camper Van Beethoven tracks were also not available on bitTorrent or other file-sharing sites. Time and time again I have heard from people that illegal file-sharing provides fans with access to these obscure and hard to find songs and artists. Not true. Yet all these “rare” and hard to find songs were readily available in iTunes.
This is typical of the bad science at the heart of the “copyright stifles innovation” argument. It is an argument that flies in the face of easily accessible facts. It is remarkably easy to disprove this argument yet no one seems to challenge this argument. It’s another one of those quasi-religious beliefs we often find associated with the web. It is one of the tenets of the religion of the internet. Proponents are given a religious exemption from the facts.
Further Sergey Brin and others are confusing an illegal arbitrage strategy with innovation. Arbitrage is a strategy whereby a buyer exploits the difference in price of a commodity in two different markets. In other words the file-sharing sites are exploiting the price difference between the “free” illegal unlicensed version of the song and the licensed paid version on iTunes or Amazon. This price difference, this arbitrage, is why file-sharing is profitable. This is not innovation. “The wall” brin describes is not the disincentive. “The wall” does not exist. The disincentive is the price. Here Brin is simply providing a bullshit rationalization for unethical behavior.
(All proponents of file sharing: If you want music for free, if you feel that artists don’t need to be compensated, be a man about it, just come out and say it instead of making up these bullshit arguments.)
When Google, as it is wont to do, argues that it is being hamstrung by “Hollywood” and copyrights you have to wonder if they are smoking crack. Google’s revenue rose 29% last year to 37 billion dollars! The much less evil Apple saw iTunes revenue rise to 6 billion in 2011 and is predicting growth of 39% annually. Spotify isn’t having a problem growing, so where is the hell is innovation being stifled? Google TV? That’s not copyrights stifling innovation that’s just a sucky product.
It also should be also noted that Google suffers from terrible corporate governance and maybe shouldn’t be made the example for all the tech industry. I feel bad for Google shareholders, If this company had some “grown-ups” on board it’s possible that someone might have suggested that “declaring war on hollywood” was a bad idea when the very success of Google TV depends on those you are declaring war upon. Instead Google TV becomes another expensive shareholder boondoggle like the Chrome Book or Driverless Car. But I digress.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’m tired of hearing how artists like myself, how our constitutional rights to control our own artistic works are inhibiting innovation in the tech world. It’s simply not true. Further Google should stop blaming copyright for their own unforced errors. The tech/web industry has been enormously successful. How much more money do these guys need? When your company is wildly profitable and you are demanding even more ?
“There’s a word for that: Greed”
Next up we’ll look at how the DRM protected gaming world encourages innovation. We’ll give out some Nyan Cat Awards of our own. We’ll ask if Jefferson was the Ringo of Founding fathers. And I’ll very briefly explain why we keep picking on Google.
* Trichordist doesn’t have interns. I enlisted hungover band and crew members in my experiment.
**Apparently Sergey Brin has not used a legitimate media site since Apple abandoned DRM in 2007 . He doesn’t consume any media? Or one of the richest men in the world is stealing music and films! Re-read his statement!