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Yar!: Some Thoughts On Our Fiendish And Star-Crossed Love Of Music Piracy

Good news! At least one Rihanna-related news item from last week didn’t involve journalists taken hostage aboard her 777 tour jet. Indirectly, though, it does involve pirates: along with Toto, T.I., and Rush, the Barbadian princess has signed an open letter published this week in Billboard opposing the Internet Radio Fairness Act (IRFA). Arguing that the bill would drastically reduce the royalties internet radio companies pay to the artists whose music they play, the co-signers present themselves as ill-used, and the bill’s sponsors (including the internet radio giant Pandora) as unreasonable, manipulative, and greedy.

There’s a faint tone of alarm and victimhood in all this. Writing that the music community “is just now beginning to gain a footing in this new digital world,” the authors seem okay with promulgating the notion that music sales worldwide are declining (they’re not), and that the threat of file sharing has irremediably eroded the industry’s future (even though a Columbia-sponsored study published last month indicates that file sharers actually spend more money on music than their non-sharing counterparts). The letter’s authors also seem to brush aside the large number of artists who have benefitted in the new era—in particular the people who share their work for free on established digital platforms like Soundcloud or MySpace.

Most of all, they describe the “digital world” as a recent occurrence to affect the music business. Whether purposeful or not, you and I know that these are huge oversights, and that internet radio, streaming video and sound, and piracy have been a sizable source of woe for quite a while.

Napster in 1999.

If you came of age in the 90s, you probably recall the first piece of music you downloaded illegally. I can’t be alone on this one. Napster emerged somewhere between small-time romantic encounters on the roof of a CVS and puffs of burnt chronic shared behind a deli among eagerly profligate eighth-graders, and like dry-humping or illicit soft drugs, it has carried a (silly) cachet of subversiveness into the present day.

Music piracy is also like smot poking in that even though it is illegal, it is so popular and widespread that even those who hate it seem more intent on reining it in than on making it disappear. A generation after Napster, piracy is in the American DNA. Americans downloaded 96.7 million music files from the BitTorrent file sharing site in the first half of 2012. According to a study by the online music analytics firm Musicmetric, the United States was by far the biggest BitTorrent customer overall, with our total exceeding the combined totals of the next two biggest perpetrators (Italy and the UK) by 20 percent. It seems safe to say that the majority of those transactions were sneaky.

I mean no disrespect (USA! Fuck yeah!) when I suggest that file sharing might not be a uniquely American sport, and how the issue is being addressed around the world is actually pretty interesting, too.


One of the cuter stories to come out of last year’s debate over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) were the illegal downloads of songs by The Beach Boys that were traced to Paris’s Lycée Palace, home to then-president Nicolas Sarkozy. The news was especially striking in view of the fact that France had passed one of the strictest anti-piracy bills in Europe, allotting fines to anyone caught downloading music illegally three or more times. As no one in the Lycée was prosecuted, a man who was fined €150 ($193) for illegally downloading Rihanna songs this fall was reported as the law’s only casualty so far.

Far less cute are the anti-piracy methods in India, where the government’s penchant for taking down entire sites that hosted suspected content (including sites as big and benign as Vimeo) has given onlookers an idea of what life would be like in America if SOPA had passed. Two weeks ago, representatives from the Indian Music Industry filed a petition with the government in support of a law that would allow content to be taken down within 36 hours, without any notice to the content creator or uploader. According to Techdirt, industry leaders believed that the strategy, however stringent, was the least the government could do.

“Owners of websites are unknown, and it’s impossible to track,” the petition read, “and it is practically impossible for copyright owners to take action against people located outside India. The IT Rules allow the designated officers to block the contents of the website.”

This story broke at about the same time that the merits of untidy sampling practices by Ugandan musicians including Chameleon, Bobi Wine, and Bebe Cool were being weighed against the need for artists and producers to be properly compensated for original material. A few weeks ago, the Ghana Daily Guide reported that Association of Ghana Music Producers (NASGAMP) was also beginning to host workshops around Ghana educating the public about the dangers of stealing their favorite kologo and goje beats.

Bobi Wine: “By Far” (DJ Tasman remix)

In Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America, these measures are driven by the belief that copyright law will fall apart if it isn’t made stronger or easier to enforce. This level of vigilance is matched, it would seem, by the creators of Pandora and Spotify, who knew their wares couldn’t survive without taking the competition of free content into account. Earlier this month, the tech writer Amelia Wade aptly described the October 16th release of Xbox Music as a hybrid between Spotify and iTunes. She, too, sees the innovation as the latest strategy by the music industry “to fight internet piracy.”

Let’s see if it works.

@Reid_Singer

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