Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Why does the music industry hate their customers?

So now the music industry is going after sites that share guitar tabs. The issue is that the industry feels that their copyrights are being violated by these sites. Perhaps - while I think this would fall under "fair use," I'm also no lawyer so I'm not really any sort of authority to judge this. But even if they are technically within their rights to shut down these sites (or at least remove the tabs), it is utter insanity and stupidity of them to do so.

The main problem I have with this is that it seems to serve no useful purpose. If this were making a serious dent in a real business, I'd feel otherwise. But I know from personal experience as a guitar player that there is precious little tab that is formally published by the industry; outside the most mainstream of music and the biggest hits, 99% of bands/albums/songs are simply unavailable to purchase from the copyright holder. So it's hard for me to accept any claim of economic harm that would arise from sharing what you figure out if there's no "legal" alternative. And even when songs are published, a pathetically high percentage of these books are "simplified" and are thus not at all useful to figure out how to play the song.

If the music industry published "as played" tabs for each song that they publish on a CD, that would be wonderful and I'd be arguing that the tab sites are a problem. And in fact, when I want to learn how to play something that is beyond my abilities to figure out, the first thing that I do is buy the tab if it is available. But they don't. Why? Because it's not economically viable to publish very many tabs. Which I think proves my point that they're not suffering any harm from these tab sharing sites: after all, if the market doesn't justify publishing more than a few tab books, then isn't the "problem" of guitarists sharing what they've figured out really a purely academic one?

But I find this disturbing on other levels as well.

First off, where is the line? If I figure out how to play a song (which I often do), am I violating copyright? If I show a friend in person, have I broken the law? What if I write it down and mail it to them? And if those are OK, why can't I post it on a bulletin board - is it really only a question of scale, that 1:1 communication is fine but public communication is where the line is crossed? Good commentary on this at And what if I just do, say, the guitar solo in the middle of the song. Wouldn't that be covered by fair use? What about just the overall chord progression, minus all the details/solos/etc.?

I really wonder why the music industry hates their customers. I think they really do - there are numerous examples of where the industry works to prevent its customers from doing perfectly legitimate things (from a copyright law perspective) in order to prevent a few illegal things. Want examples?
  • Exhibit A, in my opinion, is the whole Sony Rootkit incident; this is a poster child for hating your customers.
  • Another example is the industry's pet legislation, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which sure seems to me to censor free speech and makes technically illegal the ripping of your DVD's to your computer. I have absolutely no intention of sharing DVD-based movies, but the fact that I can't rip them to my hard drive so that I don't have to muck with the plastic disc is irritating and insane - how on earth does doing that violate copyright law? In buying the DVD, I've bought the right to watch the movie; why does the medium matter so much? They're treating me like a baby, assuming I'm going to share it, and inconvenience me as a result.
  • Overall, look at how grudgingly the music industry came over to legal internet distribution - and they still have onerous copy protection that is not interoperable between different devices. If you buy from iTunes, you've lost your music if you ever want to use something from someone other than Apple. How is that consumer friendly? If you buy a song, seems to me that you've bought the right to listen to that song wherever you want. (Heck, if you buy the CD or a record or a cassette, that's certainly the case. You just have to lug the physical medium around. Yuck.) The music industry's behavior clearly says to me that given the choice between making $100 in revenue and losing 5% to piracy or making $150 in revenue and losing 20% to piracy, they would choose the first option. (Do the math if you want to see why this is a bad idea). And they wonder why their sales are falling.
Anyhow, back to guitar players.

Guitar players learn how to play from other guitar players; the Internet has made it so much easier for musicians to learn to be better musicians, which should lead to better music being made (which we sorely need). What purpose is possibly served by quashing that?

Lots of bands cover songs, even in public performances. Technically, this is also illegal, but it's something that's rarely enforced except for the biggest acts. I get, though, why the industry would want to enforce this: if a band is making money on someone else's song, well, that's pretty much exactly what copyright law was designed to address; it doesn't get more clear cut than that, in my opinion.

Learning how to play a song is not the same as performing it publicly or sharing an MP3 that you ripped, any more than reading the script to Star Wars is the same experience as seeing the movie. And in this case, you're not even publishing the script, you're publishing your synopsis of the plot, albeit with as much detail as you can.

I think that this is a bad battle for the music industry to pick.

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