From consumption of expression to consumption of experience

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Update — 01/08/2009

Independent: Student fined $675,000 in music download case

The Guardian article above tells a story of one Mr Tenenbaum, who ‘shared’ music, and as a result, has been sued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for $4.5 million. The amount demanded by RIAA seems disproportionate, however, it is quite interesting that Mr Tenenbaum does not admit (at least explicitly) that he has done anything morally wrong or illegal. After all, sharing is good?

I have some sympathy towards someone who is in Mr Tenenbaum’s position – RIAA is trying to make examples out of a few to deter the many – but I do not think Mr Tenenbaum is an innocent party, a martyr to the cause of freedom. Sharing music is a form of theft, however one disguises it. And theft is wrong and illegal. The victim ought to have the right to claim back what has been wrongfully taken from him or her. There is a merit in disputing the existence of intellectual property, that creation ought not be owned by anyone. But that is not the route of argument taken by Mr Tenenbaum: he only highlights the iniquity of RIAA’s claims.

Intellectual property rights over expression will become harder to protect: copying text and music may remain illegal, but the ease of copying will make it almost unenforceable in the future. The ease of reproduction lessens, or so it seems, guilt one feels about breaking the law. With so much information available for free, and sharing a selfless virtue, those who wish to safeguard intellectual property will face an ever steeper uphill struggle.

Music has been the most vulnerable artistic expression to piracy: digital copy means that there is no real degradation in quality. Before the digital era, illegal copies of LPs, tapes and even CDs had variable quality. Copying then was physical, in the sense that the pirates needed blanks and equipment. All one needs now to become a digital pirate is a computer and internet access.

Books – the written word – may be next. As more publications become available in PDF or electronically, copying becomes as easy with music. Copying books until now meant either standing in front of the photocopier or scanning page by page. Now PDF documents can be shared just as easily as a music file. As will be argued in the next paragraph, books, or more accurately the authors’ financial future, may be in a bigger danger than music and musicians.

If copying becomes so easy, and intellectual property virtually unenforceable, then creators / artists / musicians / authors and their mediators (the record companies and publishers) will suffer finanically. So instead of offering expression, these people will need to offer experience. This seems to be starting with music already. Everyone can listen to the recorded music, any time and any place one likes, but it is a different matter with live concerts. It is not just the music (expression), but the whole package of experience of being at a concert that people pay for. This is one reason which makes it more difficult to authors: how much would one pay to go to an author reading his or her work?

There are forms of art and expression which are difficult to copy without compromising quality, and therefore remain less vulnerable than music and books. Digitized versions of paintings are unlikely to possess the power of the real thing. Acting or ballet performances will lose something special when seen on a television screen. Concerts, theatres, museums, galleries and even university education all offer unique experience. They are real, immediate, personal and irreproducible. Even if the same person goes to the same production by the same group of people, it is still different. People will continue to pay for such experience.

Music and publishing need to adjust to this change in the consumer society which will pay for experience, but not necessarily for expression. With music, it’s easier to offer a unique experience by organizing concerts, but more difficult for authors. Still, there will be people who will pay for music recording and books, so it’s not as if everything will disappear immediately, but there will be less money to be made for the industry and less choice for the consumers. How this will affect the cultural diversity and richness, whether positively or negatively, remains to be seen.