Books written by Ray Sullivan

Sunday, 26 July 2015

How to break a record

Struggling with the latest incarnation of iTunes has become a bit of a habit here. I don't use Apple but my wife does, and has loaded our CD collection onto her iPod over time. It didn't come as a surprise the other day that she struggled to load three CDs she'd received for her birthday as the goalposts seem to move every few months, but this time the challenge seemed to have her beaten.

A chance remark pointed us to the real culprit, though. For once it wasn't Apple attempting to be over-clever with their software updates, it was just Apple attempting to comply with the law. Before my international readers start panicking, this currently is a British problem only, but I guess the moral is international in nature, so may come to bite non-British readers too.

Until fairly recently, in the UK at least, it wasn't legal to make copies of recorded music without the copyright holder's permission. This was enshrined in laws created decades before MP3s and digital recordings were invented and to be honest nobody took them seriously. Of course there were some people who took the proverbial Michael out of the situation and copied music wholesale, sometimes for gain, sometimes just because they could. Some have been prosecuted, most probably haven't. The music industry has been very active in pursuing these people over the years, and as the owner of copyright material (books) I have some empathy with them.

However many people just made copies for their own use, to pop in the car for example, initially on a cassette tape, later by burning a full or MP3 copy to CD. Of course many also made occasional copies to give to their friends and this really freaked out the music industry, which for decades had cashed in big time on music sales. There were a few ways the music industry could have attacked this problem.

One way could have been to make their products more affordable and attractive - in the mid nineties a CD typically cost £15 to buy. When burning CDs became an affordable option many people made counterfeit copies, most of which had the artist and album name scribbled on with a Sharpie. I'm guessing that in a perfect world nobody would choose such an offering over a professionally produced CD, but £15 versus £0.50 makes the decision easier. Now if the industry had reduced the average cost to £7 or less then many folk would have chosen to buy the prime product every time. Would it have eradicated copies? No way, we would still like to make our 'disposable' copy for the car, some people would never accept a price that was low enough (and probably wouldn't have bought the original anyway), and just because the technology existed it would be used.

But the price differential made the deal a no-brainer in many people's eyes. Arguably the record industry pricing structure encouraged piracy. The alternate approach, the one pursued by the industry, was to sue. They had, and retain, a legal right to protect their property. It didn't work, piracy became rife and was followed by music streaming services and the likes of iTunes. I suspect that more reasonably priced products would have delayed the iTunes era but wouldn't have prevented it.

Today artists use recordings to promote tours, which is where they make their money as opposed to the seventies where touring was a loss making process to promote record sales. I don't think the new music business model is universally popular with musicians but they seem to have accepted that the earth turns, sun rises, world changes. Of course the recording industry doesn't get much out of this new world order, so they are far from happy.

Last year the UK government overhauled its copyright legislation to account for the massive changes we've witnessed and part of that legislation actually enshrined the right to copy music you had bought purely for your own consumption. All other copying rightfully remained illegal, but the copying of music paid for and owned was enshrined in law for the first time ever.

However the music industry, in concert with the Musician's Union, have challenged the government's legislation in the courts and recently the UK High Court agreed with them that the government hadn't considered their rights sufficiently. Consequently copying music for your own use from media you have paid for is now not only illegal, it is explicitly illegal as opposed to being implicitly illegal. That is why Apple won't let us copy our own music to the iPod.

Will this help the music industry? Unlikely, apart from the point that most CD collections are already in iTunes somewhere the law only stops ethical organisations like Apple from explicitly assisting in breaking the law, whereas most of us still retain suitable software to rip CDs to MP3 for use on less constrictive environments than Apple's (at minimal risk of prosecution). Out and out pirates will be unbothered by the change in the law as their activities were already outside of it. What the industry has done is provide another compelling reason to not buy CDs, which although now much better priced than they used to be, are still more lucrative than the download royalties.  Of course we may all start downloading and streaming like crazy, but then again some might decide it's a change too far and just stop buying music.

We can just get our fix from our extensive CD libraries and by going to gigs. Musicians hopefully will continue to find ways to compensate them for their artistry. The guys and gals who add value to music through artwork, design and packaging are going to find work even harder to make a living and the fat cats who add little value will now slim down. For the record I'm hopeful I'm right about the musicians, sad about the value adding people and couldn't give a stuff about the fat cats, who I suspect initiated this latest episode.

With luck the case will go to the Supreme Court and get reversed or the government will redraft the legislation to suit the courts' requirements. Or maybe the music industry will just get some common sense. I for one won't make the same mistakes made by the record companies with my books. Sure, when you buy one or more of my books only a percentage of your hard earned cash makes its way to me and in some cases, for example Amazon, the majority goes to people who had no input whatsoever in the crafting of the books. Notwithstanding I endeavour to keep the costs down and at the time of writing this post all of my books can be obtained for the cost of one CD, at least as long as CDs continue to exist.

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