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The mathematics of copyright

Regulars will know that I have a dim view of "copyright". The idea is sound, the implementation is anything but. For starters, if I like <song> and I have a plastic bank card with lots of numbers on it, why can I not purchase <song> to download directly to my MP3 player? You'll know I can purchase CDs from all over the world (Chihiro Onitsuka; Japan, going price plus over €40 in postage!) but when it comes to digital music, it is a totally different game. Suddenly these things involve regions and licencing. Suddenly something that should be really quite simple turns into something really rather difficult - but believe me when I say this is intentional. People in different places pay different amounts for songs, and god forbid anybody shop around to look for the best price. Music in digital form is not "software", is not "licenced by geography", all of this is a smokescreen to hide shady business practice; akin to those companies that offer 128kbit MP3s. No, people, 128kbit is not "good", it is the absolute minimum that is "acceptable". If you rip your own CDs, you might use 128kbit for a mobile phone where you will be listening on ear buds with an amount of ambient noise. If you are paying for music, 320kbit is what you should receive, and 256kbit the minimum you accept. 128kbit for a purchased song is an insult.

Then we get on to the penalities and losses. Quite often, people will hear a song (radio, streaming "radio") and then they will rip the song off YouTube or some sort of MP3 provider and listen to that. For many, the story ends there. Not just because everybody is a cheap bastard, but also frequently because of the difficulties in getting the source material. Importing a five hundred yen CD single (that's around 4-5 euros) simply doesn't make sense when postage will set you back ten times that amount. There are other suppliers, but their prices are often inflated due to their own supply costs. The logical solution is the one that is so rarely offered - MP3 download. Under current American practice, a single pirated song will cost the industry $150,000. This is a ridiculous figure, and it is even more amazing when you consider that if I was to pirate a song (-$150,000) and like it a lot so decide to buy the album (+$15), my net cost to the industry would be pegged at $149,985. That sort of creative accounting makes me want to buy a random album and then "pirate" all the songs off the internet just because (net loss to the industry for pirating the exact same thing as I legally purchased... millions). I don't know what people were smoking when those figures came in to play; but the practice doesn't exactly make you willing to respect copyright much, does it?

Here's a TED talk that points out the lunacy of the maths:

Some of the calcalations may require further explanation - take a look at Rob Reid's blog post for more details.


Something that is often heard when these sorts of topics arise on forums of news sites is "copyright is theft" and "how we should respect the content creators".

Let's look a little closer. Firstly, ripping a song or a movie is not "theft" in the traditional sense. If I broke into your house and stole your DVD of "Transformers" (pick one, any one), not only would I have deprived you of the ability to watch that film, I would also be demonstrating extremely poor taste in actually wanting to steal the regurgitated dead corpse of a movie reboot of a Japanese toy franchise from the mid eighties, where eye candy is more important than anything resembling a plot and it is stuffed full of that superhero posturing the Americans like so much. Rant against crap movies aside, you had a DVD, now you don't. That is theft.
If, however, I was to download said abomination of a film off the internet, I have not deprived anybody of their material. I have not "stolen" anything. At best, the movie industry could claim a loss, but this is unquantifiable as it assumes that I would have purchased the movie in the first place. Is it a loss to the industry when I buy my DVDs as discounted end-of-line stuff? Is it a loss to the industry when the film is shown on terrestrial TV (and while they will pay a licence for it, it certainly won't be going-price-per-viewer, never mind $150,000 per viewer!).

I will turn to music downloads for covering the reality of the content creators. It is an emotional plea designed to appeal to your conscience that by ripping off stuff you are depriving hardworking songwriters and musicians the ability to buy food for their children, etc etc. You'll hear this FUD a lot. Unfortunately, there is somebody who is an even bigger bastard than the pirate, as an article in The Guardian in 2006 points out:

[man's wife buys a £7.99 album off iTunes; breaking down the figures]
The government (of course) took its 17.5% in VAT off the top, leaving 6.59 net. Under a standard record contract, the split, according to the BACS, would go something like this: performer 48p, songwriter 53p, credit card company 59p and Apple 99p - while the record company trousers the remaining four quid. Even at the megastar rates enjoyed by Macca, Jagger and Jacko (22% of retail, no deductions), the performer gets maybe 1 more and the record company a quid less. Hey, do the maths.
For every £7.99 album you purchase, the actual content creator receives a mite under 50p (the credit card company gets a bigger slice than that!). That's a quid if they're a singer/songwriter. But don't forget, the recording and promotion costs are usually met by the artist, not the record company.


Wouldn't it be much better if we could sample songs that we might like, linked to other songs by artist, by genre, etc and those that we want to have for ourselves, we could buy for 50p (10p for hosting/service, 10p for transaction, and 30p to the artist). That's 30p per song, not per album (a ten songs album would cost us £5 and make them £3). We can pick'n'mix and enjoy the stuff we like. Simply, easily, and without fuss.

The technology exists, it is feasible, however the willpower to pull this off isn't there; especially since it suggests cutting out the biggest leeches, the recording industry. They had a purpose, way back when. They don't seem to have realised that their purpose is ever diminishing, and rather than modernise and look to new ways to do what they do, they will resist as long and hard as they can while telling everybody that movie piracy costs the economy more per year than would the failure of every crop. The figures are such a pile of bull I'm surprised anybody even listens to them any more.

I will wait patiently. When I was young the phone book came with a supplementary book listing arcane shortcut dialing codes, for the price of a phone call depended not only on time of day, but upon distance. Now, with my internet package, I can call my neighbour or my friend in London or my (non-existant) girlfriend in Saitama for two hours at a time for free. I can pay a monthly amount to access websites. When I want, how often I want, and as much data as I want. This is very different to the days of Prestel when you'd pay say 5p for a 40x24 screenful of information (on top of connection charges and such). Once upon a time to be truly contactable you needed an Iridium phone and a lot of money. Now a ten pound phone will get you contactable across most of the inhabited parts of the civilised world, and a hundred pound phone will throw in internet connectivity too.
So with this in mind, I hope that some day soon my favourite music will be both affordable and accessible; and our payments will be going mostly to those who make the music. The real "content creators".


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Rob, 7th January 2013, 17:17
Did you see this report? -girl-confiscate-winnie-the-pooh-laptop-121122/ 
They didn't even manage to download the song, so went out and bought it, and STILL got hauled through the courts...
Rick, 7th January 2013, 18:05
Yes, it was on The Register. Looks like the Finnish copyright Gestapo have dragged the Police on board to do their enforcement; so not only was the *child's* laptop confiscated for a non-event (and the father harassed into paying), but the taxpayer funded cops are enforcing the citizen's expense. 
Need I say more?

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