The Digital Economy Bill that is wending its glacial way through the UK parliament has produced an interesting row between the BPI (representing the interests of the major record labels) and the ISPs, telco’s and mobile network operators. They are arguing over who should pay how much to fund remedial measures to clamp down on illegal file-sharing. The BPI is in a tough place since the cheaper they argue the cost will be, the more the ISPs respond by saying “well then you can pay for it.” Minister Stephen Timms recently suggested the split should be 75/25 (with the BPI paying the greater amount).
The irony of this is that few people really believe that these remedies will make a blind bit of difference. Increasingly, the mood of the zeitgeist is that rights owners are wasting their money by trying to control file-sharing. They are neither succeeding in their efforts nor acting with fiduciary responsibility to the content originators whom they are failing to recompense properly. Their vain efforts at control are merely Canute like attempts to maintain an anachronism of a business model.
The chorus demanding collective licensing of recording rights is growing ever louder. The argument is very simple, instead of spending money trying to stop file-sharing, simply agree to monetise all the activity that is out there by licensing it, making it legal and charging for it. Essentially, this would create a baseline of revenue through a flat rate subscription which would legalise and remunerate the flow of music around the networks.
The first point in the argument is that a small levy of say £3 per month per subscriber to every UK ISP would generate more than the current £1bn that the recorded music industry earns at dealer price today. It’s of course a moot point and hard to argue without a) trying out a version of it somewhere small and harmless and b) seeking the active cooperation of the ISPs in trying to envisage how it might work.
The second point is that we could build added value services on top of the baseline revenues. Services like recommendation and discovery engines, market/user analysis and data-crunching, ticket sales and gig guides, digital bundling with physical products, quality of service – higher speed delivery solutions, etc, etc. What’s not to like? And what’s not to recognise – when all of these kinds of products and services are already being offered by up-and-coming businesses out there online?
One objection from the majors to this, of course, is that these kinds of businesses are not owned or controlled by them and they are all broadly based on the presumption of access to all content – not on the nurturing and distribution of some sub-segment of it. It’s true of course that innovation comes from elsewhere. They don’t own or control these new kinds of companies – although as we’ve seen very publicly with Spotify – the majors do take a stake if the market-entrant foolish enough to seek to jump over the licensing hurdle. The cost of jumping is very high – in cash and in equity. If we can’t continue to feed our old business model, the majors argue, how will we nurture and develop new talent? We invest in talent for the UK and make it internationally successful and these new ideas do not support that model, they protest.
The problem is that they are spending a lot of money defending the old model and it’s hard to find evidence of a single major record company investing in new ways of nurturing talent or developing artists careers online or offline. The nature of the recording contract has not fundamentally changed in fifty years – it has simply evolved recently to try to encompass even broader areas of an artist’s creative output.
So what might be the total added value of all these kinds of new services which live on top of the content? Nobody knows, but clearly the opportunity is very significant. In fact it is so great that, in my view, it exceeds the value of the entire recorded music and live industries put together. After all, it represents what the architecture of the new digital content industry will look like.
If we can shift from compulsory control (which has failed) to compulsory remuneration (which is highly feasible) then we can allow file-sharers to go crazy in consumption and we can all make money.
Independent labels (like Beggars Banquet and other smaller labels) are increasingly seeing the economic arguments in favour of the new model. The Zelnick report just published in France has recommended it. The UK Music Manager Forum has been calling for it for nearly a year. The UK music industry group called the Value Recognition Strategy group have been planning to trial a version of this on the Isle of Man for about eighteen months, but the major labels and the music publishers have prevented it. Universal music themselves proposed a form of collective license for unlimited downloads to the Virgin Media group for their music service and this has not launched due to the objections of the other major labels.
Running out ahead of the crowd, a group of thinkers with a great deal of experience and insight into digital media has been proposing this for some time. Myself, Pete Jenner, Gerd Leonhard, Paul Sanders, Paul Hitchman, Matthew Brown and occasionally our cousin Jim Griffin in the US have been meeting for about five years to develop the thinking around this. But we have often felt ourselves to be in the wilderness. Jim has been trying to work through the issues with his Choruss group courtesy of Warner Music in the US but his proposed trials on US university campuses have yet to launch – hopefully we will see some action this year. Meanwhile, the UK Government’s Digital Britain programme has spawned Digital Test Beds which are being managed by the Technology Strategy Board and which may become precisely the kind of platform that could help try out some of these new models in a relatively risk free fashion – and with some public subsidy – how enlightened is that?
Of course all sorts of issues remain unresolved, desperately in need of further practical examination. It’s only when you try things out in the real world that interested unexpected questions surface and can start to be resolved. If a collective license were compulsory how could artists protect their moral rights? On what kinds of grounds would it be legitimate for an artist to refuse permission for their work to be used? It is perhaps not well understood or recognised, but today’s songwriters, lyricists and composers enjoy the fruits of a compulsory license by law. But should the law be reviewed for other matters? What is the relationship between the statutory license fee and the contractual sums agreed between artists and publishers? How do we balance the economic needs of creators against the creative competition of the market place? Perhaps artists should be arguing for statutory minimum royalties for any contract – over and above which publishers could offer premiums according to the status and value potential of the artist? What kinds of new agency should we establish that could collect and administer royalties appropriately and with the lightest touch enabled by technology? How could we group rights together using their meta-data tags so that they can be handled with the maximum efficiency and rights owners can get paid in real time – not with the kind of 15% overhead charge and six month delays that are the norm among current collecting agencies?
The Digital Economy Bill has not helped any of these discussions surface. It has sought to listen to the high cost lobbying efforts of the incumbents and paid little attention to long view policy proposals. It has found political expediency in the short termism of the big business driven by quarterly results rather than really trying to place the country’s long term benefit at the forefront of its objectives. Perhaps the time is right to turn to Brussels for hope in this area with its broader perspective and more radical agenda – despite the bureaucracy and opacity of process – maybe change can be effected across all of Europe?