Teacher, feminist, krautrock connoisseur, anime enthusiast, player of video games, occasional modder, intermittent blogger

Why the GEZ is evil

Okay, since I'm ranting today, I'm going to explain why the German television license, the GEZ, is evil.

Until recently it was much like the BBC license in Britain; that is, you had to pay a license fee to support the state-run broadcasting networks. And similarly, if you didn't have a TV or radio which could receive those broadcasts, you basically didn't have to pay.

Since the start of the year, however, the rules have changed: now, anyone with a TV, radio, or internet connection, has to pay the license fee of about €20 a month. The actual fee for a TV owner is slightly lower than before, so many people are perfectly fine with the change, and haven't even noticed.

But the problem is the 'internet connection' part of the new rules. If you don't even have a computer, but have a smart phone - hell, if you even have a standard phone with a clunky, slow browser that loads at a snail's pace - you have to pay.

Why? Because you can access the websites of the state-sponsored broadcasters on the internet.

Let's get this straight: because you could visit the German ARD website, you have to pay a license fee.

And that's evil, because of the principle it establishes.

If you could visit the site, you have to pay, regardless of whether you actually do so or not.

I could also visit a porn site: does that mean that I have to pay for it even if I don't? Hmm, I could send a bill to everyone in the world asking to be paid for writing this post, because they might read it.

I could visit all sorts of sites on the internet, because, you know, the internet is a big place. Do I have to pay for all of the sites I don't visit, as well as those that I do?

Ah, you're pushing it too far, you respond. But I'm not. Because even if the German government does not intend that this model should be extended to the rest of the internet, then it must think that only it - or perhaps it and other governments - has the right to apply this model.

Either this model - paying for potential rather than actual use - can be applied to all websites, or it can only be applied to those websites which the government decides it can be applied to. In other words, while companies can't charge you money for something which you can only potentially use, a government can. On this model, the government can make the public pay for anything it wants, so long as it posts a website which anyone in Germany could visit.

While the GEZ is now basically an internet tax in everything but name, it sets up one of two principles. Either any company on the internet can charge you for its content, or governments can force the public to pay for whatever they want. Both are extremely dangerous.

Kant's first definition of the categorical imperative, which forms the basis of his system of morality, is this:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.

On the basis of that definition, the current GEZ is immoral.

'Bild' and the Intention Economy

Yesterday morning, I went to collect my post and discovered a copy of Bild sticking out of my letterbox. So I threw it in the trash with all the other unsolicited junk mail.

Bild, for those who don't know, is a German tabloid which is not even allowed to call itself a newspaper. Although that's an urban legend, the very fact that so many people believe it tells you how the German public feel about Bild. Since 1998, its circulation has fallen from 4.56 million to 2.84 million (in 2011). And in March this year, it decided to remove the daily nude from the front cover (my incredulous emphasis). But my point today is not (only) to criticise Bild, but to discuss how it ended up in my letterbox.

Today, 24 June, is the 60th anniversary of the newspaper's launch, and in order to celebrate Bild sent itself to 41 million households in Germany (the Sunday edition of Bild is a separate publication and a couple of years younger, so that's why we received the anniversary issue a day earlier). In doing so it apparently set a world record for "the largest circulation for the free special edition of a newspaper." Except, of course, nobody asked for a free Bild to be shoved into their letterbox, which makes this achievement sound rather hollow. And let's not forget that the sheer expense of the event: the printing, logistics and waste generated could hardly be anything other than significant.

Unsurprisingly, when Bild announced its plan to effectively spam every household in the country, many people were upset—upset enough to launch a counter campaign which resulted in a legally-binding right to refuse. In the first twelve days of the campaign, some 200,000 people completed an application to not receive a copy of Bild. Naturally enough, Bild is claiming some kind of victory here as well, since only 0.6% of German households did not want to receive the free issue—surely, the reasoning goes, 99.4% were happy to join Bild in celebrating its 60th birthday.

No. The reason that only 200,000 dissented was because the whole approach was opt-out rather than opt-in. After reading about the plan months ago, my girlfriend and I considered joining the counter campaign, but decided against it since opting-out actually entailed sending our personal information to Bild. And opting out would still not stop Bild from feeding our letterbox with rubbish: instead, we'd receive an envelope containing a letter which said, more-or-less, 'Thank you for not taking part in Bild's 60th anniversary celebrations...' Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

So after that I forgot about the whole thing, and only remembered yesterday when I was confronted by the offending article in my mail. And my response was the same as with any other junk: remove from letterbox and fling in the large cardboard box which stands behind the front door, specifically designed for collecting such trash. I probably didn't even break my step as I continued on the way to collect bread rolls from the bakery.

Actually going through the opt-out process seems to have met with mixed results: some people still received Bild (perhaps because they didn't click on the confirmation email they were sent), and some people received both a red envelope and Bild (perhaps because the postman/woman were not sufficiently instructed about what they were supposed to do). The counter campaign is now collecting evidence before deciding how to proceed.

Bild decided that the German public would all take part. Sure, we were able to refuse, but doing so required considerably more effort than just forgetting and using the trash when the day came. We were, without solicitation, opted into a campaign, with the choice to opt out if we could be bothered. Most people couldn't, and didn't. But what if the choice had been the other way around, if we'd had to ask to receive a free copy of Bild, rather than getting it automatically? Obviously, the entire event would have been a massive failure.

* * *

Serendipitously, a short while later the post delivered my copy of The Intention Economy, by Doc Searls. Now, I'm a slow(ish) reader, so I have barely started the book, but what I have read (and seen in his interview with Leo Laporte on this week's Triangulation) got me thinking about the Bild I'd thrown away.

In essence, the Intention Economy stands in sharp contrast to the Attention Economy, which Searls argues "has shaped marketing and sales since the dawn of advertising." In the Attention Economy, companies seek to deal with an over-abundance of information (or competition) by winning the attention of a customer. All traditional advertising is attention-seeking: even the modern, supposedly individualised online advertisements still do this by hoping to appear relevant. The first step of the AIDA principle of marketing (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action), attention is a crucial part in achieving "a customer who is ready to buy," in Peter Drucker's words:

The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service fits him and sells itself. Ideally, marketing should result in a customer who is ready to buy.

The problem with this is that it treats the customer as a subject to be studied, or a source of data to be collected. What it fails to do, and what modern technology could and should enable, is actually listen to the wishes of the customer. Instead of desperately collecting as much information about their customers as possible, in order to find the best way of attracting their attention, companies would be better off—in the long run—asking customers what they want, and finding effective ways of listening to them. Marketing typically places the customer at the centre of the operations of a company; but what it has not done is ascribe the customer agency or intention. Marketing has researched the customer rather than communicated with them.

This, I take it, is what The Intention Economy and Searls' ProjectVRM is attempting to address. And now, back to Bild.

* * *

The 60th anniversary 'celebration' of Bild is clear example of attention-seeking. Having seen its circulation fall by roughly a third over the last decade, the newspaper decided to force its way into the German consciousness like a petulant child shrieking 'Look at me! Look at me! Pay attention, damn you!' Bild did not in the slightest care what we wanted, and made it more difficult for us to object than to just let it have its little public tantrum.

Perhaps I exaggerate after the fact. But then again, perhaps we should not underestimate Bild's aggressive, cynical, opt-out-only attempt to increase its circulation. It is a particularly visible example of the Attention Economy at its worst. Bear in mind that the whole of modern advertising is based on similar principles; as are, necessarily, the advertising-supported internet and social networks. Do not forget that Facebook, with nearly a billion users, derives its (disappointing) market value from advertising and that it very much operates on a 'choose to opt-out rather than choose to opt-in' basis. Bild is far from being alone.

Yet neither are we. At the risk of sounding too inflammatory, I'll end by saying this: if we do not tell companies what we want, and what we do not want, they will never listen to us. Bild, Facebook and others like them are based on a model which, on the one hand, encourages consumer passivity, and on the other rewards whoever can make themselves heard over the attention-seeking masses, either by sheer volume, or by being the most intrusive and obnoxious. If that is not what we want, we need to find a way to gain their attention, and inform them of our intention.

Digital Vertigo, by Andrew Keen

Without a doubt, @ajkeen is a fine writer. The only word I can think of to describe the introductory chapter to his latest book, Digital Vertigo, is 'intoxicating'. He led me through the rainy streets of London to the corpse of Jeremy Bentham and expressed his inner turmoil over the posting of a neo-Cartesian tweet with such skill that, when I paused to reflect at the chapter's end, I wondered if there hadn't been some literary slight of hand involved, if the quality of the writing was blinding me to some sophistry. But no, it is simply that Keen is a fine writer.

The style settles down somewhat after that, but the method does not. Keen sees connections everywhere, and the result is a heady concoction of philosophy, history, cinema, art, hippy culture and technological commentary. I will not attempt to summarise the argument in any detail: it twists and turns like a twisty-turny thing. Perhaps it goes too far sometimes—I was never entirely convinced by the relevance of Hitchcock's Vertigo (from which the book draws its name), although that may be in part due to my unfamiliarity with the film, which Keen would undoubtedly be horrified by. But there is a great deal that can be said about the modern sharing, public, digital world by taking a step back and looking at it from a wider historical / philosophical perspective, and I greatly appreciate Keen's efforts in drawing attention to such parallels.

One of the central arguments of Digital Vertigo is that the major proponents of the social web are those who stand to gain the most from it. It may ostensively be 'free' to join Facebook, but the consequence is that you are not actually a customer, in the traditional sense, of Facebook, but rather a product. And, as a product, the more you share, and the more social you are, the more valuable you become to the company. As such, it is no wonder that such the entrepreneurs behind such companies believe that privacy is dead, or that the future is social, or that humans are, by their very nature, social animals. It is no wonder because these technological gurus have a vested interest in encouraging you to be as social as possible.

Keen wishes to go further than that, however, arguing that we risk losing the essence of what makes us human when we succumb to the pressure of becoming hyper-social. Referring to Mill, he says that

our uniqueness as a species lies in our ability to stand apart from the crowd, to disentangle ourselves from society, to be let alone and to be able to think and act for ourselves.

Or to put it another way, the digital narcissism implicit in today's social networks is dangerously dehumanising.

Keen is no Luddite, which is why it's a cheap shot to criticise him for inviting people to follow him on twitter (as the book cover playfully illustrates). If anything, he's interested in informed consent; people should be aware of what they're getting into, of the dangers of excess, and free to choose not to. And naturally enough, the default setting of the social network should be privacy: we should choose to be public, not choose to be private.

If I have concerns about Digital Vertigo, it's with the occasionally disingenuous argumentation. Needless to say, Jeff Jarvis and his recent Public Parts comes in for a fair amount of criticism, but Jarvis is generally more sophisticated than Keen's treatment suggests (that being said, Jarvis' unquestioning idolisation of Mark Zuckerberg began his book with a sour taste that I could never quite dismiss). But there are other points where the polemical narrative seems to take over: for example, in describing Josh Harris, the subject of We Live In Public, Keen suggests that Harris is now more-or-less living in isolation and disgrace in Ethiopia. Not so, according to Jarvis, who spends several pages describing 'The Wired City', a next-generation reality show planned by Harris (admittedly a kickstarter project which failed). Another example: Eric Schmidt's rather ridiculous comment that young people should be able to automatically change their names on reaching adulthood, which, as Jarvis points out, was intended as a joke. Keen is well aware of this, as I've seen him acknowledge in an interview, but it's not mentioned in the book, presumably because it would have weakened, or distracted from, the point he was trying to make. Also, I've always considered novelists less than reliable sources for philosophical arguments (because what they are writing is, by its nature, fiction), but Keen is more than happy to cite authors, novels, and films to illustrate his argument that we're heading in the wrong direction.

These points may well be pedantic, and I do, in principle, agree with where Keen is trying to go with the book; there were just times when I was sceptical about how he was getting there. And that is true of pretty much every mention of The Social Network, a (semi)fictionalised account of the birth of Facebook which Zuckerberg refused to be interviewed for. The film may have been Oscar-nominated, but that hardly grants it any credibility; and suggesting, as Keen does at the end of Digital Vertigo, that we should watch it in order to help make the choice "between being human and being an elephant or a sheep" is almost farcical. At best, this is preaching to the converted, because none of the 'proponents' of the social network will have any time for the film (think: hatchet job). At worst, it's a cynical deception: trust a Hollywood, old media, fictionalised cinematic account rather than seeking the truth. I don't actually think that Keen is being so manipulative; but if Jarvis' hero-worship of Zuckerberg is the sour taste in Public Parts, Keen's praise for The Social Network is the bum note in Digital Vertigo.

All in all, though, I enjoyed my time with Digital Vertigo, and my copy is enthusiastically dog-eared. It's a well-written, insightful account of the potential dangers of the social web we find ourselves increasingly caught up in. And if, at times, Keen gets a little too wrapped up in the point he's trying to make, it doesn't stop that point being any less vital or timely.

[Keen's recent opinion piece on CNN is worth a read to get the gist of what the book is about...]


Thinking about a new course on internet, information and critical thinking, I've been tempted by the idea of doing a lecture. But of course that's wrong: standing in front of a bunch of people and attempting to impart my supposedly superior knowledge would almost contradict what I was trying to say. Inspired by what I've been reading in Jeff Jarvis' book, I think I need to find a way of using the same resources and/or media that I plan to be talking about; and maybe, just maybe involving students in the content of the course...

Cnut and the internet flood.

In a previous post (which I've added to the site, and was coincidentally the only post I'd made this year before my creativity resolution) I wrote the following:

The internet, portable computing, and constant connectivity are increasingly ubiquitous. Denying that is like Cnut trying to hold back the tide.
But perhaps that wasn't entirely fair, either to Cnut or those internet deniers. First of all, it seems that Cnut's 'attempt' to hold back the tide may (I stress may) have been an act of piety rather than arrogance. But more importantly, is it truly appropriate to use the story as a smilie or metaphor for something which we might consider inevitable?

Let's recap. Cnut reputedly placed his throne on the shoreline as the tide was coming in and commanded it to turn back. Naturally, he failed. But what if, instead of attempting to command the tide, he had build a sea wall to contain the tide?

Then again, perhaps Cnut could have gone surfboarding. Or built a hydro-electric plant. (Weston-super-Mare, by the way, is said to have the second highest tidal range in the world, and the photograph doesn't show the highest part of the wall.)

The point I'm trying to get across is that while the story of Cnut is commonly used as a metaphor for the futility of trying to hold back progress (or nature, and so on), there would still be any number of things he could have done instead, all of which would have responded to the incoming tide in different, but more successful ways. Even if he could not command the tide, he could perhaps have controlled it, or prevented it from flooding a nearby town, or harnessed its energy.

The same goes for the internet and technology. I still fundamentally believe that trying to deny, prevent, or ignore the digital age is futile and even irresponsible. It is simply the world that we are living in. But that does not mean we should just submit to some imagined inevitability. The tide may be coming in, but that does not necessarily mean that we must resign ourselves to being swept up by the tide and pulled under. We could also learn to swim.

Education and technological incompetence

A couple of years back, I completed my Masters degree. It was principally concerned with open, online and distance learning; in short, educational technology in the modern learning environment. Now, while I never really expected to be able to apply all those ideas in my job, since our learning institutions are still very much based around classrooms and traditional structures, I did at least think that it would be generally accepted that, as the information age moves into the digital age, the importance of such technology would be basically unquestioned. The internet, portable computing, and constant connectivity are increasingly ubiquitous. Denying that is like Cnut trying to hold back the tide.

Some six years before that, I worked for an institution which was integrating the internet and computing into examinations. Instead of pen-and-paper exams for each separate discipline, we were beginning to do combined, networked exams. Students would begin in the morning, have a number of tasks to complete over the next few hours, had full access to computers and the internet, and took breaks when they wanted. The general idea was to make the examination as 'realistic' as possible, essentially reflecting a day at work, along with the resources and skills required to deal with it.

By no means was the procedure perfect, but it nevertheless embodied the principle that education and examinations should adapt to the actual way the world works. Educational institutes do not exist in a bubble; they should prepare students in a way which is relevant to society and the work environment into which they will be thrust upon graduation. Even if not all institutes could or should be consistently cutting edge, surely all must be informed by the realities of the world outside.

When I began teaching in the late 90's, I purchased a briefcase which ultimately broke under the weight of the stuff I had to carry around in it: textbooks, dictionaries, cassette players and so on. I quickly lightened the load by purchasing an electronic dictionary, which was soon supplemented with and ultimately replaced by a Palm handheld. Nowadays I have only a MacBook Air, a set of USB speakers, and the occasional textbook. The university has a wireless network which, even if a bit flaky, covers the whole campus. Beyond that, smart phones have expanded internet connectivity to the point that essentially all my students are online at all times. Not being able to access the internet is the exception, rather than the rule.

Textbooks are next for the chopping block, as Apple's keynote yesterday indicates. As mobile computing becomes increasingly powerful, yet also more lightweight and affordable, and as the digital publishing becomes easier, lugging heaps of textbooks to lectures will become a thing of the past. I'm not fantasizing here, nor jumping on the 'Apple will revolutionize education' bandwagon; this is just the way the world is now. This semester, for the first time, I have students using iPads to write academic papers. Between exams today, most students pulled out their smart phones and checked Facebook or whatever. In many ways the important point is that this technology is not brought into the classroom by teachers, but by the students themselves.

In this context, I would argue that it is largely anachronistic that my students today are writing an exam with pen and paper. After all, the only time in their lives that they will actually do such a thing is in an examination. But I accept, with qualifications, that our institution does not have the resources or confidence to administer the kind of networked examination that I described above.

Worse, in my view, is the professor who says, amidst sexist jokes, that universities should be the same today as they were 60 years ago.

I do not expect everyone to be as much of a geek as I am, but people whose job it is to offer instruction to the youth of today should have a basic level of technological competence and understanding. Without that, how can you possibly stand in front of a classroom and offer your students relevant instruction in an appropriate manner?

The Bunny Boy Video Series

*Contains spoilers*

I watched the first few episodes of The Bunny Boy Video Series by The Residents when they were originally released, but failed to keep up with them during the move to Magdeburg. Yesterday I listened to The Bunny Boy album on the way to work and decided to see what had happened to the Video Series when I got home, only to find that it had coincidentally just ended two days before, on 6 April 2009. So last night I downloaded the whole lot and sat down to watch.

Back to back, the 66 episodes (67 if you count the two-parter) take about two-and-a-half hours to watch. The episodes themselves are more like video diaries, shot from a hand-held camera by the Bunny Boy himself—who we learn is called Roger—although he eventually enlists help from a Russian friend named Igor. Most videos are single takes; cuts do creep into later episodes along with the occasional special effect (and glove puppets!), serving to undermine the impression that the videos are 'real', although I suspect that this was the intention in any case. The sleeve notes to the album state that the videos—supposedly posted to The Residents on a DVD—were the inspiration for their musical retelling, but the question of which came first is actually irrelevant. The videos describe events occurring after the release of the album, such as the Bunny Boy being persuaded to accompany the band on tour and seeking sponsorship for the show. The two approaches, video and album, essentially tell the same story through different media, rather like the stories which accompanied 2005's Animal Lover complimented the music.

The premise of the story is that Roger's brother Harvey has gone missing; not knowing where to begin searching for him, Roger records these short videos and posts them on YouTube in the hope that somebody will notice his plight and be able to offer help. Eventually clues start to come in, both from 'viewers' and by examining Harvey's belongings, and Roger is drawn to the small village of Patmos, Arkansaw. But this plot is more or less a Macguffin—Harvey is never actually found, and the only glimpses we have of him are torn up photographs. Indeed, it is never really clear whether Roger and Harvey are actually different people.

We learn that Roger went on holiday with Harvey's family to the Greek island of Patmos, where the Book of Revelation was written, and suffered a breakdown—to begin with he is unable to remember anything from the trip and is confused by a shadowy figure (himself) lurking in the family photographs. Harvey and his wife Hilda apparently became estranged after the failure of a dotcom company which Harvey attempted to launch, but Roger is still living in a 'secret room' in the basement of their house, surrounded with all sorts of paraphernalia.

Many of the scenes build on these ambiguities and can be viewed from the perspective either that Roger and Harvey are the same person, or that they are not. At one point, for example, Roger asks Harvey's daughter to make a plea for help on one of the videos, but she's too uncomfortable to do so; it isn't clear whether she's uncomfortable with recording the video for the voyeuristic public or whether the problem is rather that she finds it difficult to play along with Roger's delusions. One morning Roger wakes to discover a stack of boxes left outside his door by Hilda, apparently containing drawings and notes by Harvey; but again, we can't be sure whether Hilda passed on the notes to help Roger with his search or to snap him out of it.

But even this question is something of a Macguffin. I'm not sure that it really matters whether Roger and Harvey are the same person or not, and the lack of definitive clues seems to support this. What's important is how Roger sees the situation: that he really does have a lost brother, that signs seem to be pointing an Apocalypse which only he and Harvey can prevent, despite being consumed with doubt. If it's all a delusional fantasy, then it is still one which seems real to Roger, and all we can do is follow him. He may not actually fight the Beast in the cellar of a chicken farm, and it may all be a confrontation of himself; but then what matters is how Roger constructs his narrative.

Appropriately enough, social media such as YouTube and Twitter form an underlying critical theme in the series, as Roger attempts to get his message heard. To begin with he receives mostly spam; sympathy and criticism, when they come, are naturally from complete strangers, and both seem misplaced. He begins to don a rabbit costume when a viewer comments on his clothing, at first taking offence but quickly settling into the role. His 'viewers' become 'fans', both in his mind and in reality; in the end he receives sponsorship, with the unscrupulous Residents (!) selling the rights to his character (The Bunny Boy) and his predicament. The final episode gives us a taste of things to come, as an anonymous media company launches The All New Adventures of The Bunny Boy. What started out as a genuine plea for help is trivialised, sensationalised and commercialised: Roger is unable to keep himself separate, and his story becomes shaped by the media it adopts. This bitterness runs throughout the series: Roger is alone, occasionally indulged by those near to him, misunderstood and manipulated by those further away. The internet and social media do not really offer a solution, just more and greater disappointment.

All of this is, of course, purely interpretative. It's just what the Video Series meant to me. Others might see more in it, or less. But it's well worth watching.

The Bunny Boy Video Series can be downloaded from http://www.residents.com/bunnyboy/.

Against Copy-Controlled CDs

There has recently been a shift away from the largely authoritarian prohibitions adorning CDs to a more ‘personal’ approach: rather than the familiar “All rights reserved. Unauthorised copying blah blah blah is prohibited”, recent EMI CDs have sported the spiel reproduced below.
Thank you for buying this music and for supporting the artists, songwriters, musicians and others who've made it and made it possible. Please remember that this recording and artwork are protected by copyright law. Since you don't own the copyright, it's not yours to distribute. Please don't use Internet services that promote illegal distribution of copyrighted music, give away copies of discs or lend discs to others for copying. It's hurting the artists who created the music. It has the same effect as stealing a disc from a store without paying for it.

Apart from the somewhat whining tone, this is a shift of focus away from what we might call ‘professional’ copying (pirating CDs en masse and selling them in shops as actual substitutes for the originals) to ‘casual’ copying (making copies for friends). The latter has apparently reached such proportions, and the copies such high quality, that it is considered the more threatening to the music industry, or at least threatening enough to warrant a direct appeal. This appeal is apparently to the better side in all of us, the side of us which is basically law-abiding, and the side of us which doesn’t really understand the implications of what we are doing when we copy a CD for a friend. However, I find it sentimental, patronising and on the verge of insulting.

That illegal copying and downloading have reached unprecedented proportions is beyond question. What is questionable is the explanation presented in the passage quoted above. You and I copy CDs because we don’t understand what we’re doing, how it’s hurting the poor musicians and ‘others’ (I wonder who they are? - perhaps the same people who were so afraid of releasing Terry Gilliam’s most famous film that he had to put an advert in the newspaper which read, "Dear XYZ, when are you going to release my film Brazil?" - in short, the pushers of pens). It’s like stealing from a shop, and you and I wouldn’t do that, now would we? Yet we copy CDs. The unavoidable implication of this is that the music industry regards the likes of you and me not so much as customers but as potential (or actual) criminals. How generous. And if we could only realise how it hurts (and don’t forget, as R.E.M. once said, that “Everybody hurts”), could let our hearts fill up with sympathy and empathy, instead of apathy, we could rise above the sinful temptation.

Do I go too far? Perhaps. But please note that there in no mention of the over-pricing and poor standards of commercialised music in the passage cited (admittedly, how could there be?). All the blame for the current proliferation of copying and downloading is the consumer’s responsibility. The music industry have (needless to say) absolved themselves of the need to produce quality music at a reasonable price - in short, of giving us value for our money. And so long as the blame is one-sided, and seen as solely the prerogative of the unscrupulous consumer rather than the unscrupulous producer, there will never be a solution to the problem.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not promoting the illegal distribution of CDs and I am not an inveterate copier of CDs myself (I own over 800 bought CDs). I most definitely agree that we should pay musicians for what they do. What I am disputing is that the problem lies where the music industry think it does (or better: where they are telling us it lies) and that it can be solved in the way they think it can.

So here, in a little more detail, are my objections.

1) The argument from stealing goes like this: if I copy a CD for a friend, I am depriving a store of the sale of that CD. If I hadn’t copied the CD, my friend would have bought it, and as such the shop would have made its €16, and thus I am effectively stealing. Fallacy #1: there is no reason to think that my friend would necessarily have bought the CD if I had not burnt it for them. True, they might have; but might have is entirely different from would have. They might have listened to it in the store, decided that there were only two good songs on it, taped them off the radio, and waited for the Greatest Hits to come out. In that situation, exactly how has the copying deprived the store of money? It hasn’t, and my point is this: even if copying CDs often deprives stores of money, it does not categorically deprive them of money, and as such cannot categorically be compared to stealing.

Which brings up to Fallacy #2: copying a CD for a friend is not like stealing it from a shop, for the simple reason that I bought the CD which I am copying. Naturally this does not give me copyright over the material. But I still paid my €16 for the CD, and even if the store has diminishing returns on that CD the more I copy it (one copy = €8, two copies = €5.33, and so on), at least there are returns. When I steal a CD from a store the returns are immediately €0 for everyone involved. True, the store doesn’t make its second €16, but it did make its first, and in this copying a CD is significantly different to downloading songs from the internet or indeed stealing it. To accuse the general public of effectively stealing a CD from a store when they copy it for a friend is over-simplistic and sensationalist.

However, it might be argued that even if what I say is true, when I copy a CD from a friend, the analogy with stealing is more appropriate, since I have paid nothing. But that still depends on whether or not the friend bought the CD or downloaded it from the Internet, since ultimately what interests the music industry is how many CDs are sold, not who buys them.

2) Why isn't the industry clamping down on second-hand record shops? Don't they re-sell CDs at reduced price and prevent people from buying them at full price from high-street stores? (Okay, that’s a bit pedantic....)

3) It is disingenuous to suggest that artists are only hurt by copied CDs, since it ignores the role that ‘burnt’ CDs can play in selling CDs indirectly, or at least judges it insignificant. To take an example: suppose I have two copied CDs of Ani Difranco at home. But I could qualify that by saying that I have eight bought CDs by Ani Difranco at home as well. If I hadn’t been given copies of those CDs by a friend several years ago, I would never have discovered her music and bought every album she has released since. So in this case, surely even if those two copies of CDs are comparable to stealing, the threefold returns of subsequent sales must offset that.

Ani Difranco has a far better slogan than the EMI blurb on her CDs:
Unauthorised duplication, while sometimes necessary, is never as good as the real thing.

This strikes me as much more honest. Ani Difranco is herself a fine example of what is meant by ‘while sometimes necessary’, since her career is built on the distribution of bootlegged tapes of her earliest album(s) during the early nineties, which built a following because of the quality of the music (pushers of pens take note) that allowed her to become a successful independent artist thereafter. Just how many artists have built their careers on great live performances and casual copying? My estimate would be many, although admittedly confined to the so-called ‘independent’ scene. A great British example would be the Ozric Tentacles, whose early albums are all 60 minutes long because that was the length of the cassettes they were recorded onto. But if we start talking about unauthorised copying possibly being more threatening to some artists than others - namely, more threatening to the commercialised, over-promoted artists who only have hits because we are told that they are good, than to those who eschew such machinery and consistently produce good music and live performances without top 40 hits - then we are entering a wholly different ball-game.

4) Someone may accuse me of having a deficient sense of morality: that just as stealing is wrong (=illegal), copying a CD is wrong (=illegal), and that, after all, something is either right or wrong, and there is nothing in between. The answer is that there are shades of grey. Remember the old commandment of Thou shalt not kill? Try explaining that it means in all cases to any God-fearing Christian of the crusades, or latterly born-again Christians like George Bush. My views about the war are irrelevant here; just that when even self-professed Christians believe that killing is acceptable in some circumstances, what compels the rest of us to accept that stealing is in all cases wrong? And furthermore, anyone who sides with the music industry should stop being an apologist, since surely no-one in their right mind thinks that the industry itself believes in black-and-white morality. Just watch the sliding standards of sex/advertising on any music TV station you care to mention if you don’t agree.

5) Copying a CD for a friend is vastly different to downloading music from the Internet or indeed posting music on the Internet for others to download. Such a song is readily available to thousands upon thousands of people, which is somewhat different to the limited number of CDs that could be burnt for a circle of friends that have similar music tastes. Internet sites which promote illegal downloads of music are more comparable to the ‘professional’ copying I mentioned earlier than to casual copying through the sheer magnitude of potential downloads.

6) I find the Apple Music Store, which recently celebrated its 10 millionth download amongst American Mac users alone, instructive in several ways.

i) The obvious: that it is commercially viable to sell music downloads over the Internet, if the price is reasonable, the service effective, and people have the right to do what they want with the music (such as burn it to CD) when they have downloaded it. All the previous solutions offered by the music industry were overly paranoid and incredulous, like suggestions that people could ‘rent’ the music on subscription or pay for the number of plays.

ii) The principle fear of the music industry - that such a service would promote ‘greatest hits’ or ‘Top-40’ downloading rather than downloads of complete albums - has proven unfounded. Now just why were they worried about that? Perhaps because the multi-media morass which is popular music sells mediocre albums on the back of two or three hit videos which are indistinguishable from all the other hit videos and promoted to the point of saturation, and that given the opportunity the public would judge the rest of the album for what it is and ignore it. After all, not everybody (hardly anybody) is, like Michael Jackson, capable of producing an entire album of viable hits (as was certainly the case with Dangerous). And Kaboom! all those low-quality-driven profits are out of the window. But for whatever reason - maybe we’re just too well trained - it didn’t materialise.

iii) The introduction of the Apple (iTunes) Music Store in Europe is currently planned for the euro-zone only. One wonders why. Administration purposes? Hardly. The truth is surely that the euro-zone, with its single currency, has a certain degree of price parity, while the main country outside the euro-zone, Britain, has no price-parity whatsoever with the countries within it. A new CD in Germany costs say €16 or €17, while it costs the same in pounds sterling. With a conversion rate of approximately £2 : €3, that means that the average British CD costs around €24. The excuse for this, as for all the extortionate prices of Britain, is import costs (which of course is why Guinness, imported from Ireland, is cheaper in Germany than in Britain). And here we have the real reason for euro-scepticism amongst British companies. After all, what self-respecting British company would willingly subject itself to a transparent pan-European enterprise which highlighted just how much they had been overcharging the British public for decades? The same is true of the music industry in Britain in relation to the Apple Music Store.1

7) Copy Controlled CDs don’t prevent copying. Any fool can copy a copy controlled CD, by simply buying a cable from a local electrical store, connecting the headphone jack on a standard hi-fi system or disc-man to the input jack on the computer and importing the sound with software like the open source Audacity. True, it won’t be a digital reproduction but an audio one, yet the point is this: Copy Control does not prevent anyone who actually wants to copy the CD from copying it. It simply takes a little longer (1:1 playback), and doesn’t even involve fancy software which can be outlawed, just around €3 for a cable.

8) They are intensely annoying. I don’t have a hi-fi system, or a TV, only a computer (I fell for the Apple propaganda about a digital hub, all right? You know, all that stuff about a computer being able to do what you want it to and not needing six different appliances to do what one thing is perfectly capable of doing?) The software that comes along with these CDs is rubbish, since it keeps jumping, stopping and utterly ruining the listening experience. So either I have to connect my disc-man to the computer every time I want to listen to a Copy Controlled CD, or for simple convenience, I am encouraged to employ the method described above to circumvent the problem in order to listen to the blasted CDs whenever I want to do so with the minimum hassle. In other words, Copy Controlled CDs may even encourage people to find ways of overcoming the inconvenience.


Those are some of my reasons for disliking the spiel now found on Copy Control CDs. It targets the wrong consumer problem (which is downloads); it treats the consumer like a criminal; and it ignores the responsibility of the music industry to produce things which are worth parting with our money for. It is a cynical, and above all frightened, manoeuvre. What is the music industry frightened of? Change in the face of technology. So far its response to the increasingly open and global scale of technology has been increasing protectionism, increasingly aggressive attitudes towards those who do not play the prescribed game. For the music industry the dot-com bubble never burst: it never even began.

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