WASHINGTON, D.C. — The wild, wild West of Internet anarchy that was the first decade of the new century has a new sheriff. And she paid a visit to the 10th annual Future of Music Policy Summit with a badge bearing a 33-point strategy for restoring law and order.
The summit concluded Tuesday after three days of presentations and spirited dialogue among tech heads, policy makers, artists and recored-label executives plotting a new future for the music industry. But it was a visit by President Barack Obama’s new copyright czar, Victoria Espinel, that was the talk of the conference.
The music industry’s implosion has become a cause that even the federal government can’t ignore because the same issue – unfettered exchange of Internet files – has bled into the movie and publishing industries. Now any intellectual property that can be digitized can also be shared/stolen/cannabalized within seconds of hitting the Internet, and multibillion-dollar businesses — most of them with roots firmly planted in the pre-digital 20th Century — are crying foul.
At the Future of Music summit, Espinel waxed rhapsodic about the artistic community, echoing the Obama adminstration line that American innovation and intellectual property are key to its economic recovery. But without directly indicting consumers, she outlined a strategy for containing file-sharing that suggested that many digital music fans will need to alter their behavior or else risk being cut off from the Internet at the very least.
Espinel noted that 95 percent of file-sharers consume music “illegally” — that is, they traffic in copyrighted music files that are readily available on the Internet. Does that mean tens of millions of Americans are technically “criminals” by federal standards? Espinel didn’t directly answer.
When questioned about the apparent disconnect between government policy and the way many American citizens behave when using their computers or cellphones, she merely insisted that there is “no inherent conflict” and that “the majority of consumers don’t want to engage in illegal content.”
She added that the administration would focus its crackdown on Web sites distributing illegal content, particularly those attempting to profit from it via advertising or subscriptions. But that’s a small percentage of the problem.
The rest of the conference took a more conciliatory approach, attempting to engage the way ordinary citizens/music consumers actually behave (regularly downloading music in their homes without checking into the nuances of copryight) and searching for ways to turn that behavior into a revenue stream that could eventually trickle down to artists.
“Everyone here is a file sharer,” said David Touve, a professor at Washington and Lee University. To restrict people from sharing files would compete against the basic design of the Internet — “and good luck with that,” he added.
“The last thing we need is more sticks” to beat down file sharers, said Eddie Schwartz, president of the Songwriters Association of Canada. “We need to find legal ways to file-share.”
The most popular trend is to insist the Internet service providers become part of the solution. A number of European countries have enlisted service providers to police their customers; those who engage in illegal file-sharing have their Internet access restricted or cut off.
“You can’t get revenue until you get the ISP’s to the table, by force if necessary,” said David Basskin, president of the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Association. His agitation was palpable, reflecting the attitude of many license holders and content providers tiring of seeing certain technology companies profit from music without cutting in content providers on their profits. Among the many examples derisively cited were the Google search engine that leads consumers to an illegal music file, or the Apple iPod that stores countless music files of dubious origin.
“If you are making money off artist content you have to ask yourself whether you are helping that artist pay his mortgage,” said Jesse von Doom of CASH Music, a nonprofit that creates tech tools for artists.
Steve Marks of the Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the major labels, said, “It’s not a secret that all content holders are interested in pursuing deals with ISP’s that make sense.”
That could mean the imposition of additional fees on Internet users, which opens up another set of issues: Who would collect the fees and who would distribute them not only to license-holders but to the artists themselves — often the bottom of any revenue food chain? Those questions are crucial, said Jim Griffin, a longtime tech consultant.
“Until we know how to properly distribute the money, is it even worth doing?” he asked.
These reasonable doubts clamored for space with anxious content creators and license holders who want to see revenue streams open up as soon as possible. No one questioned that music still has considerable value — more people are listening to more music than at any time in history. But how to turn that stream into a river of green for artists remains unresolved.
Wading into the middle of this decade-long debate is Victoria Espinel, copyright czar. Though she wields considerable power, she has a daunting job ahead of her reconciling a legion of business interests all looking for a stake in the new digital money pool and a nation of consumers who are used to getting their music for free.
Espinel was appointed by Obama earlier this year as the nation’s first-ever U.S. intellectual property enforcement coordinator. A few months ago she introduced a strategy for dealing with Internet file-sharing (or “smash and grab” as it was described by Vice President Joe Biden), which has been linked to a 50 percent decline in music-industry revenue over the last decade.