What The End of CDs Might Mean, In Fact

Here’s an interesting piece on copyright.

If you ignore copyright laws and download content, then good content will cease to be created for you. This is the fundamental argument put forward by contributing editor Stephen Manes, in this months issue of PC World. Manes, a fixture of the highest level of technology journalism for the past two decades, says that “if the digital pirates win, well all lose”. The article itself is probably meant to frighten moderate users of file-sharing applications and does not present any new arguments. In fact, it is full of assertions and straw man fallacies. I am not a proponent of stealing anyones property, but this missive completely ignores the fact that there is something very clearly wrong with the current economic model for music distribution. He writes:

would-be populists cry that illicit downloading is a way of protesting the pittance many artists receive from the sale of their CDs; by that logic, its okay to steal cornflakes since the farmer gets such a small cut. Sophists maintain that they wouldnt have to steal if record companies sold more music online; so if your supermarket does not deliver, youre presumably free to swipe steaks. Then theres the “I have to take a whole album when I only want one song” whine. Thats like saying that its fine to steal a hamburger patty if McDonalds wont sell the meat separately from the bun.

The problem with his answers to each of these arguments is that he assumes that the social treatment of intellectual property is unquestionably analogous to that of physical property. This is clearly not the case. The reason people purchase physical goods instead of stealing them comes down to the cost of stealing outweighing the cost of purchasing. Ramifications such as prison, social stigma, and shame — in addition to guilt over wronging someone — make stealing “costlier” for the vast majority of people, thus most people do not shoplift or commit robbery. However, in situations where these factors do not apply — e.g. a Rolex, or a $20 bill left on a deserted sidewalk — “stealing” becomes less of moral quandary.

This is bang on the money. The difference between corn flakes and music tracks is that while the processing to turn corn into corn flakes hasn’t (yet) been voided by technological advance, the whole process of making physical CDs for sale on the mass market simply isn’t necessary anymore. The whole medium has effectively been made obsolete.

Yes, that’s right. Audio CDs are another Dead Medium, they just don’t know it yet. The zombies will stay animated by the record companies for a while yet, but really, honestly, nothing the record industry does will remain dependent on them in the future. The internet is going to level the old meatspace monopolies of radio frequency (netradio is unlimited, really), advertising space (very computer screen is a limitless, personalized advertising space waiting to be capitalized on), and music distribution (physical CDs are an archaism already, and in a few years everyone else will see it as clearly as people in highly wired areas like Korea do).

And you know what? I’m not convinced that this will be bad. In fact, I have the vaguest of suspicions it might be incredibly good for the music world; without industry bottlenecks and quotas and the like running things, maybe people will be freer to experiment, to do something more different from what is dictated profitable by the money-making cash-cow equations.

Hell, maybe people who will be doing music will really be doing it primarily because they care about it, but at the same time, maybe the system will be rebuilt so that those marginal profits so negligible to a record company (and nonexistent to a given obscure musician) might instead be money that goes right to the musician, though a leech middleman to “delete” his creations once they make less than the minimum quota for catalog stock.

One thought on “What The End of CDs Might Mean, In Fact

  1. way hey! Someone who agrees with me. I steal music. For many reasons. One: is that the music I like I cant buy here. Two: I refuse to pay the exorbitant prices that the record company hyenas want to charge me. The artists really only receive a small percentage, unless they sell mega millions, which doesnt happen much these days.Three: the Internet is the only medium, where music will be produced within the next 25 years. Which, as you quite rightly say, will encourage people to make real music, there are several ways in which an artist can make money from their music without actually selling it. Selling advertising space for example. So that will encourage them to go out and promote it. The more hits they get the more money they make, simple really.

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