Usability isn’t a crime

The programmers behind The Pirate Bay are getting charged with making it easy to share files over the BitTorrent protocol. Note that it’s not because they’ve done it themselves, but because they have made it easier for others. Never before has usability been a crime.

“They have to get paid”

Copyright holders protest and say that they “have to” get paid for what they produce. And that argument seems to work well with people, because hey, why shouldn’t they? (Real non-geeky people, not people like you).

At the same time, people seem to agree that there are exceptions. It is considered OK to play music to your friends. Or lending a CD to a friend over the weekend. Or letting a colleague listen to some music on your iPod. So sharing with friends is fine. The problem, and the major change that many have missed, is that people have more friends than ever before. All across to globe, all connected via the interwebs. And as the number of friends grow, people tend to shift over, and not consider it OK to share any longer. “Hey, you can’t share with 100 people! The artists have to get paid!”.

Lets make some laws

So lets say you want to make laws based on that kind of “reasonable sharing”. How would you do that? Do you lawfully define what a friend is? The number of friends a person is allowed to have? That you have to keep a count of how many times you let someone listen to your iPod? No, it just doesn’t work.

Perhaps if you put a ban on some types of technology. Technology that makes it easy to share to many? No, because technology moves several magnitudes faster then laws get made, so as soon as you manage to ban one technology, there are five new ones available that circumvent your law. Allow any form of sharing and technology will generalize it to be used for mass sharing. (See OneSwarm for an example).

What about using technology to block sharing? This is what’s called DRM, Digital Rights Management. Sorry, it just doesn’t work. Every DRM system ever built, has been broken. The core problem is: it’s not possible to both block people from sharing music, and let people listen to it.

“Hmm, then maybe allow no sharing?”

So what about banning sharing altogether, strange as it may seem? Well, paying customers would hate it. A big part of music is sharing it with people, hoping that they will like what you like. We want to play music at our parties, without requiring everyone to pay a license fee to attend. A complete ban (and extensive citizen surveillance to go with it) would quickly lead to a separation between music that we can share, and music we can’t share.

This is exactly what has happened with computer programs. There’s now proprietary and open source, no-share and please-share. Open source is growing stronger every day, and lots of companies decide to join the tide, and release their code the same way. This is exactly what will happen to music. Let’s call it the Open Music movement, and lets see how many years the no-share music will last.

Sharing is nothing strange

To explain why allowing people to share isn’t so strange, compare a famous book author to a famous speaker. People tend to think that writers must get paid for what they write, once every time someone reads their text. If lots of people read what they write, they somehow “are entitled to” lots of money.

Speakers on the other hand, get paid each time they speak. Not each time someone listens to a recording of their speech, or someone else repeats what they say, but based on their own performance, once. They get paid for original performance, not copying. This also means that speakers want their stuff to be spread as much as possible. Because for each copy, there’s a potential new customer waiting to pay them to perform.

So why is it so strange to see the same model for writers? Writers that get paid for their performance when writing a book, not by the number of people that read it.

Separate distribution and performance

So we have to separate distribution from performance. Distribution is the reason that authors think they need the big companies. How else could they distribute their great performances to a large audience? Well, the internet. Yeye, but how can they distribute it and get paid? That’s where things get interesting, because now we’re talking about business models.

Media companies have had a distribution monopoly for a very long time. Now the internet threatens that monopoly, by making it easy for anyone to distribute anything, for free. This isn’t going to change, no matter what kinds of laws that get pushed through. So how do you tackle that?

And that’s the challenge that the record industry should put all their power towards. Think of speakers instead of writers, how do they get money? Think of how the TED conference makes lots of money off speakers. Think of how you can build technology to compete with BitTorrent, how to get people to pay for performance, not distribution. Think of how you can improve usability, something that’s in a pretty bad state when it comes to BitTorrent.

What model to use is not my problem

Companies missing proper business models is not my problem. It isn’t, and has never been, a government problem either. There’s no reason to pass integrity limiting laws to help companies survive. There doesn’t need to be completed alternatives waiting. That’s their own problem to solve, and time will tell if they manage the switch before it’s too late or not. I don’t know.

Meanwhile the internet continues to evolve, while media companies try to fine the programmers behind The Pirate Bay…

17 responses to “Usability isn’t a crime

  1. @Jonathan Hedrén: Nice! I didn’t know that there were good examples of big artists that licensed their music freely. There will be much more of that, I’m sure. About taxes: Why should we? We don’t pay a tax to save the car industry from collapsing (they just said No to that), and we shouldn’t pay a tax to help the music industry.

  2. @Dan Wolff: In this case, the helpers did not know of the specific crimes committed. It’s like organizing people, or helping them to network, something I don’t think should be illegal.

    About paying authors: The fact is that the internet has made distribution dirt cheap. That means that everyone previously making money from distribution monopoly does have a problem. You’ve started to see newspapers with the same problem, without anyone going through hoops to find out how to pay them now when people find their news online instead.

    An author’s performance is them writing a new book. That’s something they can do, and that’s what there’s demand for. If they “have to get paid” like you say (which is far from certain), I think that that’s where they should get their money. Again, any details of how it should work is actually not my problem, I can just describe how things have changed.

  3. In my eyes “Open Music” equals to Creative Commons licensing which I think is the future for many creators (Nine Inch Nails is probably the best example of a successful “Open musician” to date). Another way to solve the problem is mentioned here Vem betalar?. Maybe we all should pay via our taxes?

  4. I’m not sure I can agree.

    Usability can be a crime. Helping others commit a crime is illegal (i.e. making it easier for others to commit crimes).

    The main difference between speaches and music/books is that speaches are usually only relevant around the time they are spoken.

    And some musicians and all (well, a vast majority) authors don’t want to or cannot perform. So who should pay them while working or when they’ve finished their work? The only entity that possibly could pay is the government, but wouldn’t that put all those people under the same category, and all would be payed equally (without caring about who’s more “popular” or “better”).

    So no, business model isn’t actually our problem, but if there actually doesn’t exist a good one (allowing free distribution) – then we’re back to the first step again.
    (I guess I have such a business model though: Authors and musicians could start to include ads in their works. That on the other hand would be a catastrophy, so I hope not)

  5. @Emil Stenström: Yes, I think they have to get paid. It should be possible to make a living as an author or musician.
    And there’s no demand for a book until it’s published, unless the author is already very famous. But I do agree that it would be good if authors mainly got paid when a book is published (perhaps not only then, but that that would be the main “salary”).

    Newspapers have ads in them to finance their being – I’d hate to see that in books.

  6. @Dan Wolff: Yes, I think it should be possible to make money as an author or musician. But I don’t see a threat to that.

    What is threatened is the “right” to make a life-long living out of a few years of creativity. The few artists that seems to complain a lot seems to be the great artists of the 80’s and early 90’s, while more recent artists are either embracing the Internet or are at least a lot less categorical.

    Basically, the “making money from a distribution monopoly” are seriously threatened, and artists that have signed long-term contracts with such monopoloys might not like that. I don’t think other artists / authors / etc need to worry that much.

    There will be people willing to pay for culture. Maybe the prices will do down a bit — maybe even by half — but that still leaves more money to the actual artist than the big-label system of today.

  7. I find statements like this insulting:
    “Copyright holders protest and say that they “have to” get paid for what they produce. And that argument seems to work well with people, because hey, why shouldn’t they? (Real non-geeky people, not people like you).”

    because you are blatantly appealing to my ego by suggesting that if I agree with you I have more “nerd cred”. Whatever…

    That you think such childish rhetorical tactics will get by your reader makes me think you either have little respect for them, you don’t know any better, or maybe you are so used to preaching to the quire that you don’t know what a real argument looks like.

    I did not read the rest of your article, nor do I intend to.

  8. @Brendan Miller: I’m sorry you didn’t read the article. I actually added that parenthesis not to NOT insult people. My guess is that a bigger chunk of my audience does not agree with intellectual copyright laws. I guess it comes with being a programmer, and only seeing data (music, movies…) as 1’s and 0’s. Maybe that explains my wording?

  9. And that’s the challenge that the record industry should put all their power towards. Think of speakers instead of writers, how do they get money?

    There’s the rub for the record companies (RIAA’s customers, so to speak). This path leads to more money for the artist, but the record company getting cut out or at least playing a much smaller role.
    You no longer need millions of dollars worth of equipment to cut and mix music, just a computer and a special piece of software.
    You no longer need to stamp out thousands of CDs and distribute them to record stores around the world. Just put the music on the web, offer to send a CD for a small fee, even allow higher quality music downloads (flac) for a small fee (uses more bandwidth).
    The only thing the record company will be needed for, really, is promotion.

  10. Brendan Miller:

    […]or maybe you are so used to preaching to the quire that you don't know what a real argument looks like.

    @Brendan Miller:
    I can’t imagine why Emil would preach to one twentieth of a ream of paper (a quire). Perhaps you should understand what you are saying before you speak. Just because someone offends you with their semantics doesn’t mean the article is invalid and should not be read. You call his argument childish, but I think it is actually your reaction which is far more childish. Emil was not preaching to the choir, he was simply making an appeal to the majority of his audience.

  11. They are doing their best to block everything in this world. Starting from IT companies, finishing with companies in the audio & video world. It’s pretty clear for me that they would win money even if everything was for free for users, but they won’t ever accept this. It’s the normal spirit to chase money. Look for example at Avatar: it was a really basic simple solution to give it to users only in 3D format, right? And everybody said that you have to see it in 3D, as it’s great and so on…polluting, works great nowadays, especially when they chase $!

  12. Copyright holders protest and say that they “have to” get paid for what they produce. And that argument seems to work well with people, because hey, why shouldn’t they?

    Its not about being geeky or non-geeky.The whole point is if a speaker gets paid on what he’s reading, then the audience is “actually” listening to what he’s reading and the writer has a right to get paid. No one denies that much piracy is going on and people do benefit from it, still its not a good thing.

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