Technology and policy interests are being thrown together

There’s a natural affinity between hardcore bitheads and musicians.

Computers and music are both gear-friendly pursuits; there’s a powerful element of I-want-that when something brighter and shinier and more powerful comes along.

Both pursuits demand an instinctive command of structure and mathematics. And both provoke a sense of community that’s one part friendly rivalry for every two parts co-operation.

And their technology and policy interests are increasingly being thrown together. Technology has made it possible for a musician to create a work that might have cost a quarter of a million dollars 10 years ago on a laptop with a few thousand dollars of software. It has also made the really expensive element of the equation – distribution – a viable proposition for a band without the weight of a major label behind it through online channels. This puts technology and music shoulder to shoulder in the copyright arena.

So when the Big Entertainment lobby sponsored a $250-a-plate fundraiser for Toronto’s industry-friendly Parkdale-High Park MP Sarmite “Sam” Bulte on the eve of a federal election – at uber-hip indie music hotspot The Drake Hotel, no less – the copyright progressives at Online Rights Canada ( had to respond in kind. And with a flawless sense of irony, they chose another room in the same building on the same night.

About two dozen of the like-minded turned out for a dinner in the Drake’s Corner Café every Thursday, hastily organized by Ren Bucholz, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Canadian presence, and allies. It wasn’t $250 a plate – the $9 vegetarian Sloppy Jen comes highly recommended – and it wasn’t a fundraiser, but more of an opportunity for kindred spirits, familiar with each other’s work and activism, to meet, often for the first time. There were bloggers, students, musicians, techies, united in the belief that revisions to Canadian copyright laws have the potential to abrogate fundamental freedoms of artists, consumer, and providers of technology.

When Neil Leyton released a CD a few years ago, he said, the stipulated agreement with the listener was: If you enjoy this enough to sit through the whole CD, then copy it for your friends. Though he didn’t know it at the time, it was essentially Creative Commons licensing, the scheme that all the artists on Fading Ways, the record label he founded, use. More distribution means more fans, more people at gigs, more merchandise sold – the things that put money into the pockets of most musicians. Despite what the record labels say, it’s not CD sales that pay the rent for the vast majority of artists, though peer-to-peer music distribution does lead to bigger CD sales, Leyton says, “which the record companies refuse to believe.”

(For a fascinating look at the math behind a working artist’s life at a major record label, Courtney Love tallies it up in a widely quoted speech published by Salon magazine at Yeah, she’s not so much the poster child for reasonable behaviour, but she’s got more Golden Globe nominations than you.)

“The people who are really passionate about these issues are all music-lovers,” EFF’s Bucholz said the next day. “(The copyright lobby) likes to pretend we’re wearing trenchcoats and when we’re not downloading music, we’re sneaking into record stores and stealing CDs.”

Bucholz has been an EFF staffer four about four years, organizing grassroots campaigns and lately taking on more of a policy role. His move to Canada was a natural progression: we have the largest population of EFF contributors, activists and subscribers outside of the U.S., and his wife is a Canadian academic. (On the Things that Make You Go Hmmm front, several of the dinner attendees were recently transplanted Americans with Canadian significant others. They referred to themselves as “Canadians in Training.”) EFF started focusing more on intellectual property rights over the last five years, when the organization recognized that rather than facing off against government intrusiveness, it was industry organizations across the table, Bucholz says.

“For most artists, the greatest threat to their livelihood is obscurity, not piracy,” he says. Online distribution may be a cure for obscurity, but the recording industry is determined to choke off any distribution channel it can’t control.

One scheme for compensating artists for online music – a scheme that is widely acknowledged to be workable – is voluntary collective licensing. ISPs that provide music services would buy bulk licences, passing the cost on to users. That pool of money would be distributed among musicians according to the popularity of its work. Unlike CD and hard drive levies – which, I assume, we’ve all decided are absurd by now – users would be able to opt out, and the money collected divvied up appropriately.

The technology is available to make the back-end distribution of royalties possible and equitable, says Bucholz. Audible Magic makes an appliance that can track consumption of music files. When the Recording Industry Association of America caught wind of it, the RIAA touted it not as a mechanism to ensure its artists got compensated for online consumption of their work, but as a way to filter that content altogether and make it inaccessible, Bucholz says. Whose interests does that serve?

In the short term, EFF Canada will kick back, check out the election, and watch for legislation on copyright and lawful access to hit the fan, says Bucholz (and as EFF’s only Canadian staffer, he oughtta know). When rumblings on those fronts come out of Ottawa, he’ll be using that network of activists, contributors and subscribers to try to force a voice for consumers to the negotiation table. Open source maven Evan Leibovitch – who was at the Thursday night dinner – was impressed by the activists’ enthusiasm, but noted that with the industry forces allied against them, “they’re in for the fight of their lives.”

Dave Webb does not download music through peer-to-peer services, though he’s aware that makes him Tragically Unhip.

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Dave Webb
Dave Webb
A journalist of 20 years experience in newspapers and magazines. He has followed technology exclusively since 1998 and was the winner of the Andersen Consulting Award for Excellence in Business Journalism in the eEconomy category in 2000. (The category was eliminated in 2001, leaving Webb as the only winner ever.) He has held senior editorial positions with publications including Computing Canada, eBusiness Journal, InfoSystems Executive, Canadian Smart Living and Network World. He is currently the editor of ComputerWorld Canada and the IT World Canada newswire.

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