OPINION: Rich people have rights, I guess

Right off the bat, I want to tell you that my thoughts here come from reading an article at Jezebel where they report on the petition signed by 180 recording artists asking for some reforms of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. On first read, this sounds like nothing more than a bunch of spoiled rich people who are simply upset that they’re being deprived of the opportunity to become even more spoiled and even more rich. But then, you have to think about things a bit differently.

Let me try to explain what’s going on. Back in the late 1990s, Congress (whom, we all know, has a great track record of understanding the Internet) passed something called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It was intended to protect copyright holders from major abuse when their work was transferred to electronic devices. It confirmed the rights of companies to encrypt video and music files, of cell phone carriers to lock phones, and of software companies to charge for their products. It should be noted that nowhere in the above sentence was there any mention of protecting flesh-and-blood people, except in the implied way of keeping the economy from collapsing. DMCA was, for the most part, a windfall for tech companies and a real drag for regular folks.

The part of DMCA that has recording artists all worried is the part that says, no one can profit from your copyrighted work on the internet without your permission. That sounds pretty good to me, but they think it doesn’t go far enough. Let me explain.

Let’s say you want to get the latest Taylor Swift song. I mention Taylor Swift because she’s one of the signatories, and also unlike most contemporary recording artists, I’ve heard of her.

Apple can sell you a download of a song, or they can stream it to you over Apple Music. (I use Apple as an example because they’re one of the few companies with both a streaming and download service.) Either way, they pay young Ms. Swift a small royalty for each song downloaded or streamed.

On the other hand, let’s say some random person uploads a copy of Ms. Swift’s song to YouTube. You can stream the same song without paying anyone, and Ms. Swift doesn’t get paid either. You can even use a site like ClipConverter to download that song. I’m not sure how legal that is, but you can do it.

You see, the DMCA has two parts to it that specifically protect YouTube. While YouTube is a for-profit service, it doesn’t own the clips it hosts. It doesn’t charge to view them, it doesn’t even show ads unless the clip’s owner wants to show them. So YouTube is protect from copyright lawsuits. Out of the goodness (and capitalism) of its heart, YouTube routinely looks for copyrighted material and then contacts the copyright holder. The copyright holder can ask for the material to be taken down, or they can put their own ads on, for which YouTube takes a small fee.

Frankly that doesn’t sound so bad. It almost sounds fair.

Obviously, that’s not good enough. Recording artists are claiming that all this YouTube stuff isn’t fair to them, that it’s depriving them of royalties. And, they’re probably true. I know that I’ve turned to YouTube to hear new music from time to time, and the artists aren’t getting compensated the way they would be if I searched for it on Spotify. (or, if I was really feeling old-school, listened to the radio.) As someone who regularly posts content on the internet, I understand that this is their job and they deserve to be paid for it. The fact that they’re already stinking rich shouldn’t deprive them of their rights, I suppose. After all, in theory they’re fighting for me and all the little guys who can’t afford to fight a big fight.

Still, if we were to reform the DMCA, which badly needs reform, I’m not sure it’s the artists that need more protection. I think we need to permanently establish that you own what you pay for, find a way that electronic assets like software and downloads can be transferred from person to person (that’s right, you can’t even leave them to someone in your will.) I think that people who create unique work deserve to be protected, but not at the expense of people who just want to enjoy it. To me, this effort from the recording artists, even though it’s supposed to protect me, still seems like a bit of a money grab. What do you think?