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Aug 4, 2014

No place for artists in online copyright debate

John Ferris from Ministry of Sound Australia disagrees with the suggestion that filesharing will stop if content makers "just make stuff available".

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Hayley Mary from independent Australian band The Jezabels performs at Splendour in the Grass

As someone who has worked in many roles in music all my adult life, I was compelled to respond to Bernard Keane’s article from last week and other outlets that have criticised the Online Copyright Infringement draft legislation.

Firstly, to be clear, I do not support the Coalition government as a voter, nor in most of its policies. I have been a member of the Greens one time in my life. I am also anti-censorship. And I am a paid subscriber to Crikey because I support independent, investigative journalism.

In some of my spare time I work for music artist rights. I assist artists so they can be paid from commercial exploitation of their work. I am currently working with a number of industry bodies to find appropriate ways for artist to be properly remunerated for the use of their creative work in public venues across the country. I am not a paid member of music industry bodies such as the Australasian Performing Right Association, the Australasian Mechanical Copyright Owners Society, the Australian Recording Industry Association, or the Phonographic Performance Company of Australia, although I do sit on a couple of committees and I am an official ambassador for writers.

I have also been critical of the content industry criminalising the consumer for file sharing, and have argued for other ways to monetise the digital ecosystems.

I have noted that all articles critical of the draft legislation have demanded that the government and content suppliers should find ways to allow consumers to access content in ways that suit current market conditions, or even allow access for free — without paying for it somewhere or somehow.

No one critical of legislation has yet to suggest a real solution, from what I’ve seen. The gist is to just make stuff available and people will stop file sharing. Critics often point to cases like Foxtel’s abuse of its commercial monopoly of Game Of Thrones as to why file sharing exists — criticisms with which I agree to some degree. It seemed like madness of Foxtel/HBO to not allow, for example, iTunes to make the show available at a reasonable timeframe. But now they have — as a commercial decision, and it will be interesting to see if it works in the longer term.

But besides those silly decisions and somewhat extreme cases, I believe that content owners in general are attempting to come to terms with the impact of the digital world on their business and are looking for ways to remain active. I’m sure Crikey would understand that position. It’s easy to say that all businesses should allow access to their product for free, just because it can be done.

Putting aside the situation where content is “imported” into Australia, if you look at Australian content only, music is now “freely” available on Spotify, Pandora, etc, through streaming services. For Australian artists, making music available this way has not stopped file sharing of songs — in fact, it seems to have encouraged the belief that music should be free all the time. It continues to put downward pressure on content suppliers’ prices. You might say that this is the “modern” way, but how do you expect artists to get paid for their work, which is seemingly valued by those who want to listen to it?

“Why is the consumer considered paramount? What has happened to the artist in this discussion? Journalists seem to conveniently forget the artists in the middle and focus instead on painting a demonised image of the nasty, big companies that run the entertainment business.”

These now free streaming services pay very, very little back to an artist. If an artist has a label representing him or her, the new terms are often at least 50% back to the artist. But even then, the artist is still only getting approximately 0.001 cent per stream. At least with a download, such as from iTunes, the artist is likely to get 0.4 cents per download. That’s 400 times more than streaming! But unlike what Keane has said in his article, file sharing has not disappeared. The only way artists are able to deal with this is to just give it away to as many people and places as possible in the hope that one day they may receive something in return.

So adding the prevalence of file sharing of music to the bugger-all income from streaming means artists are getting very little. And that’s not because of some international multinational company record label or distributor ripping them off — streaming, not file sharing, is cannibalising paid downloads. Australia has a very crowded market in regards to streaming music services.

It would be preferable, now that “free” music is available to anyone through streaming, that file sharing would go away. But it’s becoming clearer that large search engines are very keen to keep file sharing alive well. Perhaps it may be time better spent for Crikey to investigate the power of Google and other companies that perpetrate the myth that shutting down file sharing sites is censorship.

To suggest that the music industry — labels and artists — have not responded to the challenges and demands of consumers is misleading. Streaming services are widely available and very damaging to the efforts to find a solution to the issue of file sharing. And Crikey, which gets paid by subscribers, is reinforcing the notion that music artists are somehow depriving struggling consumers — who actually just want to get artists’ work for free. Why is the consumer considered paramount? What has happened to the artist in this discussion? Journalists seem to conveniently forget the artists in the middle and focus instead on painting a demonised image of the nasty, big companies that run the entertainment business.

In the recent case where iiNet was found not to be responsible for what went through its “pipes”, it was the large internet providers as well as lobbying by YouTube and Google that promoted the myth that stopping file sharing was akin to censorship. And they were successful! They are also currently propagating the notion that we need to change the Copyright Act to allow “fair use” of content so they can (among other things) further erode payments to artists for their work.

This is the myth of the creative, “free” internet, but in reality it is the pursuit of using others’ creative work for the benefit of large search engines such as Google and their free user site YouTube. It’s all very well for YouTube to be saying these things, but the payment from YouTube to artists — whose work generate their massive income and profit — is pathetic and minimal. The rate YouTube pays for the use of music is even less than streaming services.

In regards to the draft proposal, I believe that music industry players are looking for the opportunity to be able to get a court order to shut down a file sharing site — nothing more. It is not directed at consumers but at businesses that break the law. I don’t believe that is censorship; it’s just like shutting down a manufacturer of “fakes” and the theft of others’ work and goods.

Given that music content providers have provided consumers with full access to “free” music through streaming subscriber services, perhaps journalists could change their perspective and start helping Australian artists actually get paid by writing articles that are critical of the big search engines that drive the free file sharing businesses instead. After all, who do you think is making money from these file sharing business? Or do you think it’s just a bunch of friendly consumers happy to share their love of music with other free spirits?

It would be good to see some balance and further investigation from media outlets rather than just peddling of myths created by one of the largest companies in the world — which, by the way, pays very little tax in Australia.

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