The Case of the Silver-spooned Twist


A limousine parks behind the dilapidated building, it’s backseat occupant shedding his tailored suit in a hurry, as it’s almost five o’clock. From a brown paper bag he pulls some clothes: a stinking woollen jumper and ancient pantaloons held together at the waist with the remnants of a plastic bag. He gets dressed, ruffles his hair, and hopes nobody will notice the cologne.

He gets out of the car and sneaks in through the back. In the assembly hall, all of the orphans have assembled and are beginning to eat the morsels handed out to them by the government official. Quickly, he hunches down and rushes over to the beginning of the line where others are being served, pushing some younger kids back. The government official hands him a bowl with a slick of porridge. Looking at what he’s been given, the content industry looks the government in the eye, sheds a crocodile tear, and says: “Please, sir, can I have some more?”

When I think of the group of industrialists and their lawyers whom I have collectively come to know outside of polite company as the Copyright Mafia, it is hard not to imagine them as an impostor, feeding off society in the guise of the underdog, pretending that they suffer hardships which the estimated $2 trillion global entertainment industry manages to hide only so well. The US market alone represents a $759 billion entertainment and media industry, with an compound annual growth rate of 4.8% according to PriceWaterhouseCoopers. To be fair, that does include all the different segments, including video games, television subscriptions and license fees, newspapers, magazines and of course recorded music, the only segment therein that has shown decline in recent years.

During a panel I was on a while back, the Copyright Mafia lobbyist sitting next to boasted that the music industry spends over $2 billion annually on promotion of “new talent”. My immediate thought was that they sure aren’t getting their money’s worth – the world needs another John Lennon and it keeps making Justin Biebers. (Oddly, another panelist made that comment out loud not long thereafter – I guess everybody was thinking it.)

Alternating between the cold hard statistics and the cries of criminal infringement from outraged Mafiosos, I’m tempted to think that the content industry’s wounds are self-inflicted. Point: Accessing content legally has never been as annoying, due to rising prices, abysmal distribution channels, digital restrictions management (DRM) and non-skippable warnings about the illegality of copying. Point: Despite hundreds of millions of dollars being pumped into copyright enforcement, almost no efforts have been made by the content industry to make it easier to pay for things online. Our options are still limited to inherently insecure and tedious to use credit cards, and fumbling libertarian wank shops like Paypal. Point: Dismayed at the situation, an increasing number of artists are trying to go it alone, bypassing the traditional power centers and putting things out there. Many of them are making a killing off it. None of them are being counted in the industry sales figures. Point: Content industry claims of losing $58 billion a year in lost revenue worldwide comes out as a little over $8 per human. If we write off the 2.7 billion people who earn less than $2/day as being economically incapable of accessing copyrighted culture, it’s about $13.5 each. Actually, if we only count the “western world”, where the vast majority of the consumption occurs, it’s closer to $58 each.

But wait! Online sales are about 7% of retail spending now in the US, growing at about 10% per year. I know, that’s a crazy amount to be spending on mostly Amazon and eBay, but there you have it. It’s estimated to be about $33 billion by 2015. Is that it, I hear you say? Is the entire retail market only about $500 billion per year? Yes, you did the math correctly, and yes, that does account for the consumer surplus. The rest is something different than buying CDs and DVDs. Sorry content industry, you can’t have another $58 from me.

It’s not a lot of money, really. I could easily pay that. I could equally easily make the often belabored argument that copied content is not lost revenue because no intent is represented, i.e., the fact that I copied your movie does not mean I’d have paid money to see it. As Stephan Kinsella put it, copyright does not imply a “property right in the money in prospective customers’ wallets”. Sorry, your content just ain’t that good. The problem is, even if we were all to fess up and pay up, I’ve seen nothing to suggest where these $58 billion should go. How many artists are there in the western world? How is the money going to be distributed between them? Actually, is the money going to be distributed between them, or just gobbled up by intermediaries?

And that’s where it all falls down, really. Look. We all have lots of friends who are excellent artists and aren’t being paid for their art. We’d happily pay to go to their concerts or to see their movies, but whenever they hold concerts, the venue pays performance fees to the collecting agencies, which in turn don’t pay them at all because they’re not in a high enough performance bracket. So the new talent – the John Lennons of the world – gets at best case some bar credit and a pat on the back, while the $2 billion goes to the Justin Biebers and the rest goes to his lawyers and the record label executives.

Sitting on the pipeline between creators and consumers is incredibly lucrative business, and it’s easy to understand that the content industry is pissed when they see their bonus payments being hauled off and being spent on unsigned artists whose distribution channels they don’t control.

That’s my problem. I love art, I love artists. We all do. We’d love to pay them lots. We wish that it was easier to do so. And it would be very nice if we could see the money going directly to the artists, not being relayed through a series of Silver-spooned Twists. That’s right, copyright goon, you’re an impostor. You’ve done a good job of making it look like you care about the artists, but you don’t. We do. The Internet does. The creative orphans are starving now because you haven’t lived up to your end of the bargain by making it easy for us to pay them. Now we’ll make that system while you sit crying in your limo.

While the creative people of the world are starving, don’t you dare ask for more.

What is this system, one might ask? Well, here’s an outline. It’s not perfect, but it’s based on observations of real examples of people doing things outside of the current system of exploitation. If it’s given a chance – outside of the system of intellectual monopolies – it may give more artists the ability to thrive, at the cost of there being fewer boy bands, pop idols and wealthy talentless people with coke habits.

I think that’s a fair trade.