In the ongoing and increasingly repetitive saga of general managerial collapse that is Spectator, the editorial I cowrote with Nathan Morgante for the Columbia chapter of FreeCulture.org about the fatally lackluster music service Ruckus has been epically botched. So I’m going to reproduce it in its entirety here. Spectator probably has the copyright on it, but hey—they’ve printed an edition with an entirely different meaning. Anyway:
Ruckus not a terrible idea, but misunderstands file sharing, music, culture, life, business, internet, everything else
M. Six Silberman and Nathan Morgante
Greetings fellow pirates! Arrrrr!
The Spectator staff editorial (”Raising a Ruckus,” 2/28/07) exploring the benefits and shortcomings of Ruckus, the new online music service for college students, suggests that “from a practical and legal standpoint, students ought to consider using it.” This is a reasonable and inoffensive—if unimaginative—conclusion, and while the service itself is technically rather uninspired, the critical complaint to be made about Ruckus is its implicit acceptance (one might say “exploitation”) of the recording industry’s intensifying legal assaults on peer-to-peer file sharing platforms and their users. The appropriate response to these assaults is not to write off peer-to-peer file sharing as a legal lost cause and quietly accept whatever “music” the culture industry decides to spoonfeed us, at whatever prices the recording executives demand, with whatever hamfisted restrictions on our cultural freedoms are necessary to assuage their (understandable) fears about long-term job security. Conscious and exclusive use of a distribution system which offers no financial remuneration to artists, however, is patently unsustainable and equally inappropriate. In this article we’ll spend some time explaining the multiple points of failure of Ruckus as an attempt to create value to individuals enmeshed in an increasingly particpatory and highly networked culture, and then offer—for the aspiring worldchangers and entrepreneurs in the crowd—some thoughts on what a truly useful alternative might look like.
It might appear impertinent to argue that the idea of giving free music to anyone with a .edu email address is a bad one, but the use restrictions on the music offered by Ruckus continue a troubling trend. The Digital Rights Managment (DRM) scheme employed by the service, for example, is the misleadingly-named “PlaysForSure,” developed by Microsoft and incompatible with iPods, non-Windows operating systems, and, oddly, Microsoft’s own flagship player, the Zune.
Ruckus users, of course, don’t own the media they obtain from the service. They borrow—or “license,” in the argot of the intellectual property biz—the privilege to use the files. A month after they’re downloaded, they stop working unless the user connects to the Ruckus server to renew the license.
Ruckus is not a compromise between user rights and the reality-defying demands of the recording industry: it is an unconditional capitulation of the former in abject deference to the latter. It remains, like the content industry at large, gleefully ignorant of the social gains to be had from freely available and modifiable—so-called “open-source”—content. And it implicitly maintains, through its reliance on a DRM scheme, that it is morally and civilizationally acceptable to criminalize the realization of those gains in the name of propping up a technologically obsolete business model whose profits benefit the few at the financial, social, and cultural expense of the many.
Many of us download copyrighted material illegally, and many of us will quickly agree that “piracy is bad,” i.e., that this activity should in fact be illegal. We feel compelled to call this perspective into question.
We have copyrights so artists, musicians, and writers don’t starve—at least, not all of them. However, this is no way necessitates the existence of a cabal of professional middlemen and contract architects to mediate the public’s relationship with musicians. The recording industry exists mainly to shoulder the burdens of distribution and marketing, but as of this writing takes approximately 80 per cent of the revenue from CD and online music sales—while justifying litigation campaigns against consumers in the name of its repertoires of starving artists.
The main argument against the current incarnation of copyright law is that the internet and specifically the peer-to-peer file sharing networks have brought the marginal cost of content distribution to exactly zero. If they use the most cost-effective model—that is, if they let BitTorrent do the work for them—getting “The Call of Ktulu” to the ten-millionth user costs Metallica the same as getting it to the second: zero dollars. If the marginal cost of distribution is zero, it seems reasonable to claim that so too should the price to the consumer be zero. “Information,” as Stewart Brand so famously said, “wants to be free.”
But the second part of Brand’s quotation is rather less famous: “Information,” he continued, “also wants to be expensive.” Why? There are a few good reasons, but in the case of music one is overriding: while the marginal cost of distribution is zero, the fixed costs involved with production and promotion are significant. Currently they’re covered by legal downloads, CD purchases, and out-of-court lawsuit settlements with the Recording Industry Association of America.
Other ideas have been proposed. One such, “voluntary collective licensing,” is logistically trivial and has worked smoothly for years in broadcast radio. The idea: for the right to download as much music as they like, consumers pay $5 per month to a nonprofit collecting agency, which distributes the revenues among registered artists commensurate with popularity.
This approach offers both consumers and artists significant gains over the current regime. Why hasn’t the recording industry adopted it? We were flipping through our econ textbooks, trying to find a catchy phrase to describe the situation concisely. “Self-interest” fits the bill vaguely, but a more recent entrant to the popular economic lexicon seems to do the job with much greater precision: “perverse incentives.”
The authors are members of the Columbia chapter of FreeCulture.org, an international student organization working to promote free culture.