Problems with the Ownership of Music

Copyright owners are disturbed that the public does not respect their property. Because the realm of the intellect has not been thoroughly commodified yet, it follows that the public will not immediately think of information and creative work as private property.

- Deborah Halbert

Eric S. Raymond, in a recent article concerning Napster, makes a valid point: file-sharing often ignores issues of ownership surrounding cultural assets. Raymond's argument is comparable to that of Lars Ulrich, Metallica drummer: if I do not give permission, you do not have the right to share the music I create. Accordingly, unauthorized sharing of music, literary, and software files denies the artist, author, or programmer the right to control and dispose of creative works.

There is certainly merit in the arguments of both Raymond and Ulrich. Yet the current state of culture is at odds with the ownership issue, particularly when the cultural assets in question are manufactured and distributed by multinational corporations. As Deborah Halbert has observed, because consumers make distinctions between cultural assets such as music and literature and non-cultural objects such as soap and automobiles - because one set of objects are thoroughly commodified and the other are not - average consumers will likely not recognize the property claims of corporations and individuals.

It is unrealistic to strictly attach property claims upon music, primarily because music contains a high degree of emotional content for many consumers. Obviously, Metallica has misinterpreted this intimacy - an emotional state wherein fans feel they are entitled to share music and musical experience with others - and as a result of their willingness to sue Napster (the vehicle of sharing) and possibly even fans themselves, the popular heavy metal band has alienated thousands, possibly millions of loyal and dedicated fans.

If, on the other hand, a Napster device were invented to trade objects that do not contain the emotional punch of music, no doubt many ardent music fans and Napster users would consider the free trade in those objects as a form of theft, or at least unauthorized and unfair trade. Consumers are usually not as passionate about bars of soap as they are about music. Granted, the emotional dismissal of ownership claims on music may strike many as irrational - especially those with highly evolved philosophical attitudes toward the sanctity of property - but then the conflict between emotion and intellect is probably older than the art of music itself. Until music can be thoroughly commodified - that is, reduced to a bar of soap - chances are causal dismissal of ownership claims will persist and Napster-like vehicles of trade will proliferate.

However, for large entertainment conglomerates and multinational corporations, the insistence that music be at least partially non-commercialized is a threat to their very reason for existence - the amplification of returns for investors and stockholders. This is not to minimize the threat to artists, especially those of the caliber of Metallica, but in general the majority of the return on their music is turned over to corporations. This is particularly the case for lesser known artists with contracts in the recording industry. For the industry, music is closer to soap - and everybody knows that you don't give away free bars of soap, not unless the math of increased return is factored in the gamble.

The RIAA may launch campaigns directed at the ethics of file-sharing - repeating their mantra that all such activity is theft - yet millions of consumers will either pay little attention or will scoff at the industry's hypocrisy. "Young people now are much less na´ve," Esther Dyson observes. "They're much more cynical than we were. And they want non-commercial transactions." In other words, they don't want economics to get in the way of the music. They don't want music to become soap. This may be anathema to corporate business practices - and even distasteful for advocates of private property - but it seems entirely natural to the average digital music trader.

"We must help form a new consensus that is staunch for liberty while condemning theft," is how Eric S. Raymond concludes his article. In order to do this, it will be essential to convince the assumed thieves that what they are doing is in fact theft. Sharing, regardless of artist permission or participation, is not now commonly viewed as theft (as in stealing your car or stereo), and for good reason - theft is an act of depriving, sharing is not. Call it, instead, unauthorized copying or listening. Metallica may have lost control of a certain number of listening experiences, but in a classic sense this is not theft, not unless a fixed monetary value can tallied against each listening experience.

It will be difficult, if not impossible, to change the heart and minds of music lovers now that the Napster cat is out of the bag. Eric S. Raymond and Lee Gomes, whom he quotes, may consider the Napster hordes as "monstrous hypocrites" for sharing the music they love and do not consider bars of soap, yet such denunciations will do little to thwart the emotional attachment people feel toward music. It will not freeze their desire to share that emotional experience with others.

Above and beyond moral lectures - especially emanating from an industry rife with immoral business practices - the RIAA and its multinational clients need to understand that music will never be entirely commodified. New attitudes and business models are in order to put an end to the divisive and counterproductive Napster wars. The industry can continue its crusade against consumer attachment to music - and the entirely natural desire to share that experience with others - or it can accept that music will never be commodified like soap and devise creative ways to change what is essentially an untenable situation.

Kurt Nimmo

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