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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Downloaders Done for Dodging Damaged Goods

The UK music industry’s latest crackdown on illegal downloads smacks of panic. I’m not saying there is no justification in their actions: you can argue that downloading copyrighted music is stealing as much as walking out of the shop with the CD. And there is some truth in the argument that without the ‘stick’ of potential prosecution, the ‘carrot’ of easy to use, legal downloads (iTunes) won’t succeed in bringing everyone to the right side of the law.

But prosecuting individual downloaders makes the record labels look petty and bullying. They are already perceived as greedy because of the ridiculous proportion of profit they take from artists. And incompetent for letting the online opportunity bypass them. It doesn’t add up to an appealing picture for customers, or investors for that matter.

You have to question whether they have done what is needed to sweeten the carrot for consumers too. I believe (and it has been shown by Steven Levitt in Freakonomics) that even with no ‘stick’, people will most often choose the legal path rather than break the law. Unless the legal option is sufficiently unpalatable, or the illegal option is so distinctly more appealing.

Legal downloads are priced at what appears on face value to be an appealing figure. Yet when you think about the cost of delivering them (tiny) and what proportion of the figure goes to the artist (also tiny), you begin to question the price. Especially since the price per track is not dissimilar to that of CD singles or albums, which have massively higher overheads to deliver and are arguably offer more ‘value’ to the consumer.

When you buy a CD, there’s the innate value of physical ownership (something that appeals to me and many people I speak to) plus the sleeve notes, the future tradeability, and importantly, the lack of copy protection. This last point is vital. If I buy a CD, the music will quite possibly reside in five different locations: the original CD, my media server, my office PC, my backup at home, and sometimes my phone too.

I can only listen to it in one place at a time. My wife doesn’t share my music tastes (or not entirely), and I don’t share music files with friends or over the internet, so I’m not breaking the spirit of any copyright law. Yet if I downloaded all my music from iTunes, this would be impossible (without some bypassing of the in-built DRM). Unless I buy all iTunes-compatible hardware, I would have to let the digital music revolution pass me by.

If the record labels are to embrace digital music, they need to do it properly. I don’t have a problem with going after criminals. Ultimately artists need to, and deserve to, get paid for their work. But when the record labels consume such a massive proportion of the income from music sales, and insist on selling DRM-damaged goods at inflated prices, it is hard to feel the downloaders are wholly responsible for trying to find a better option.

Tom Cheesewright