music: piracy is wrong, copyright matters

The Trichordist tore into an NPR columnist who admitted to having 11,000 songs but hardly paying for any of them. Now Free Software guru Richard M. Stallman wades in, and gets it wrong. I criticize him thusly (originally on Slashdot where I got a ‘5: Informative’!):

Emily White violated the copyrights on the music she acquired (“I’ve swapped hundreds of mix CDs with friends. My senior prom date took my iPod home once and returned it to me with 15 gigs of Big Star, The Velvet Underground and Yo La Tengo”). You’d think RMS would be against that, since his GPL software license expresses (admirable IMO) restrictions on what you can do with it under those same copyright laws. His arguments why Emily “did nothing wrong” are mostly the lame tired crap that piracy apologists have trotted out for decades now

After all, how can we support musicians? Buying recordings from record companies won’t do it. For nearly all records, the musicians get none of that money; the record companies keep it. See this article and this article.

Untrue. Artist royalties are often ~20% of the sales price; this chart says $.09 for an iTunes download, and artists self-releasing through CD Baby keep 75%. The meme that artists don’t get money seems to be a deliberate misunderstanding of the money record companies advance against royalties so artists can make a quality record (The Trichordist explains this well). Regardless of the percentage it is not the consumer’s right or job to decide if that’s a reasonable or obscene deal from the record company and online store. For f***’s sake, if you don’t like a song enough to pay $0.99 for an unprotected DRM-free legal copy of it so that the artist gets some money in exchange for your enjoyment of her creative endeavor, then:

1. Skip it and enjoy the zillions of free songs out there — under CC share licenses, out-of-copyright, in the public domain, live performances from trade-friendly artists on Internet Archive, etc.! As RMS knows well from software, there are great free alternatives to restricted paid works, so go support those!

2. If you whine “Waahhh, this song I want ought to be free like all those others” so you pirate it anyway, then your parents raised you badly and you’re an ethical fail.

RMS goes on

Practically speaking, the only effective and ethical way you could support musicians was through concerts.

Not true. Paying for the copyrighted recordings you want and love works great and delivers money to artists so they can make more! It’s insulting to suggest artists should instead try to collect money for something completely different — “touring and T-shirts”. (No Sgt. Pepper for you, John Paul George and Ringo are going deaf on another tour that only their teenybopper fans attend.) The idea that artists should not charge for a quality studio recording has been immensely damaging to “the Progress of Science and useful Arts” (as the US Constitution’s copyright clause puts it) in the area of recorded music, it’s a big reason why today’s songs are recorded in bedrooms on laptops instead of in quality studios with crack session musicians. And as RMS later acknowledges, touring doesn’t even work for those bands that do perform live, because they can’t afford to travel to all their fans, and then only a fraction of fans in an area can make it to the show.

RMS is on better ground with the first of his two ways to support artists

Put a tax on Internet connectivity, and divide the money among artists.

Great idea, let’s hope it happens. But his second is a fantasy:

Give each player device a button to send 50 cents anonymously to the artists.

It’s been tried, the Fairtunes service during Napster’s golden era. I ponied up money for a song I shared, but in several years of operation I think they only received $50,000 (when there were 25 million Napster users). Jane’s Addiction succinctly expressed the reason: “When I want something, I don’t wanna pay for it”

Another fantastic commenter tries to analyze the ethical vacuum where Emily will pay for fair-trade coffee, but can’t imagine compensating artists who toil for her gratification.

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