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My take on the copyright mess

Thom Yorke’s criticism to Spotify has set the blogosphere on fire and stirred up the debate about copyright, technology and new business models for artists. But while I understand Yorke’s criticism (artists should get the biggest bite from the benefits generated by their work), I don’t think Spotify is the one to blame here. Spotify has, like Netflix and iTunes, succeeded in creating a business model where users are willing to pay for what they can always find for free all around the Internet. Kudos to them, and the same way I believe artists should get the biggest share from the benefits I think it’s fair that Daniel Ek (Spotify’s founder) and the people behind these platforms get a good chunk of money from their work.

So, if we users are willing to pay and the platforms’ creators are getting rich, I think it’s obvious that the problem is somewhere between the platform and the artist. And who is there? In the music industry, the record labels. The “Big Four” (Universal Music Group, Sony BMG, EMI Group and Warner Music Group) own the copyrights of most of the songs, and surely the most popular ones. If Spotify or any other platform wants to give users the wide catalog for which we are willing to pay, they have to deal with the “Big Four” and pledge to their conditions, which sadly means that only those offering large catalogs of popular songs really benefit from being on Spotify. So yes, morally Spotify should have stood for the artists rights, but business wise it would have meant shooting themselves on the foot: no songs, no users, no money for anyone.

And the thing is that you can apply all this to the whole entertainment industry: music, TV shows, sport events, movies… you name it. They try to convince us they are embracing new technologies, when they are not. Copyright issues always get in the way. Here are a few obvious examples:

  • Spotify is not available worldwide: you can’t create your account from any country, and your payment method must be from the same country you set your profile to be from. Why? Because different countries get access to different catalogs thanks to different copyright agreements per country.
  • Netflix has a great catalog… in the US. Here in Canada the list of movies and TV shows available is way smaller and kind of outdated. And it’s again because of copyright agreements: producers sell the rights to Netflix only in the US so they can still sell them to other agents in other countries. This is supposed to maximize the producers/distributors benefits… but it doesn’t, because you can download/stream the same content for free, or use one of the many services to hide your IP and make the system think you are in the US.
  • Something similar happens in the film industry: movies don’t hit theaters at the same time in every country. Why would Europeans wait a month to go to the theater and pay for their ticket when the movie is available online for free hours after it premiers in the U.S.? Sometimes it’s just impossible to dodge all the spoilers in blogs, newspapers, forums and social media, so you feel forced to watch it before it arrives to your country.
  • Same with TV shows: they are not aired on the same day world wide. Sincerely, fans don’t care who is broadcasting the TV show, we just want to get our dose as soon as possible.
  • From some countries you have no options to watch sports and major events other than out-of-the-system streaming. If I’m in Spain, I can watch basketball games online for free and legally from the national TV channel. If I’m outside of Spain, I can’t use their streaming because they sell the broadcasting rights to different channels in each country… but hey, It seems no one in Canada is willing to pay for that and let me watch it on-line. The same happens with major events like The Oscars, but thankfully during the London Olympics someone thought about this and the official streaming was available for free worldwide.
  • Downloading songs and movies can cost as much as buying the CD or DVD, while the production and distribution costs are reduced to a minimum. Is not that users are not willing to pay, it’s just that we know that creating, storing and transporting a CD/DVD to the store where someone has to be to manipulate the cash register is more expensive than uploading a file to a server and sharing a link to it.

We have the technology to access more content worldwide, and business models that prove that users are willing to pay for this content, but the copyright owners keep putting up walls to retain most of the benefits. They are not interested in giving the audience what they want, and they are not interested in giving the artists what they deserve. They are the first ones to complain about how things are going, but it’s obvious they are the ones with the power to change it. The other option? Get them out of the equation, as they did with the Veronica Mars movie.

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