Today I discovered the wonderful Grooveshark and some thoughts occurred to me that I feel like writing down.
I haven’t spent much time thinking about rights over digital media, downloading, etc. I’ve tended to ignore the whole debate. So the following may all be commonplace observations. I have no idea.
It occurred to me that continued increases in the prevalence and bandwidth of internet access might be going to solve a problem they helped create. That we may simply be in a temporary uncomfortable phase that will soon be over.
The increase of broadband made it possible for people to download large music and video files. People had long been used to the traditional model of owning physical objects that contained their music and video: LPs, 8-track, cassettes, VHS cartridges, CDs, DVDs, etc. It was all physical property. We typically paid for it. I still have about 1,000 CDs, all paid for, sitting uselessly on my shelf.
The default frame of reference was the physical object that you bought in a store, brought home, physically put in a player, physically stored on a shelf, could lend to (and hopefully get back from) a friend. Broadband extended that, allowing us to download what we still thought of as physical objects. And they are physical objects in a real sense: occupying space on our digital hard disk shelves, needing organizational love and care, needing backups, etc.
Because the frame of reference was still physical objects, the media companies, who have their own opinion on the various rights – real and imagined – associated with these objects, had a way to go after the downloaders. They could point to the physical objects and say “hey, you stole that (object)”, or “you didn’t pay for that (object)”. They could even write worms and rootkits to dig into our computers looking for the objects, getting lists of them to hold up in court. And they had a point: where did you get that physical object after all?
But their argument, the frame of reference that shapes the debate, rests on ancient arguments: agreements and conventions regarding physical objects. Much of the law is based on these things.
The frame of reference might be due to change radically, kicking the legs out from under the music industry.
Imagine you’re walking down the street. You pass under a balcony and see open doors leading back into an apartment. There’s great music coming out of the doors, and you can hear it clearly down in the street. You stop to listen. Have you committed a crime? Would anyone even suggest that you had?
Someone comes out onto the balcony to stand in the sun. You call up and ask what the music is. They tell you, and you say how much you like it. They tell you they have other albums – and would you like to hear another song? You say yes, and stand down in the street while they put on another track. No crime there, right?
Suppose this balcony is in the building right next to yours. You go home and open your own balcony doors to be able to hear the music. You do that every day. Once in a while you bump into the neighbor in the street and comment on something else, maybe make a request. In the end the neighbor even suggests running a speaker wire into your apartment so you can hear their music whenever you like, even if it’s raining and everyone has their balcony doors closed. You buy a speaker with a volume control on it. Once in a while you even call your neighbor on the phone to ask them to play something again, or to put on a special track.
There’s no crime there, not even the hint of one. The media companies would probably like to protest. But the frame of reference has totally changed. We’ve gone from the mindset of physical possession of an object of questionable origin to the walking down the street and hearing music.
And so it will go with increasing broadband. I’ve been listening to Clem Snide all day on Grooveshark. It’s streaming into my computer and directly to my speakers without being stored as a physical object on my machine. Entire tracks are not being physically stored: the music coming out my speakers and the data on my machine are just as ephemeral as they would be if I were walking down the street overhearing Clem Snide from someone else’s balcony.
Have I broken a crime? I find it very hard to argue that I have. OTOH, if I download a file and store it on my machine (which I have done many times BTW) it’s very easy to argue that there is a crime of some sort being committed. It’s easy to ignore that feeling too, but that’s not the point.
The reality is, I think, that we don’t actually want to own the physical objects. I don’t want a shelf full of physical CDs, and I don’t want a hard drive that’s 80% full of music files that I worry about and even back up.
How many times do you watch a DVD anyway? For many people it’s silly to buy a DVD because you can rent it much more cheaply, and you’re probably only going to watch it once or maybe twice. Music, for me at least, is different as I’ll sometimes listen to a single track 100-200 times. But I still don’t need or want to own it if I can just pull it up on demand via Grooveshark. I’d rather it was their disk space than mine, and the bandwidth interference with my normal work due to the streaming audio is increasingly hard to detect.
We may just be in a temporary uncomfortable stage that will be solved by the thing that got us here – increasing broadband access.
As bandwidth increases and becomes cheaper it seems like there will be a trend towards just streaming media and not downloading it to have and to hold until the RIAA or MPAA do us part.
At that point the frame of reference will change. It will become very difficult to maintain that a crime has been committed. To do so you’ll have to also argue that walking down the street and overhearing your neighbor’s music is also a crime. Good luck making that argument.