In this month's backlog, I have encountered a lot of handwringing over what the demise of the music industry can teach us about digital rights. Most of it has expressed the belief that we as a society didn't step in to protect the music industry from those evil pirates, and now the music industry is dead, and the publishing world is next. Woe is us.
I find that version of history ridiculous. The RIAA is the victim?! Absurd. Gardner is just about the only blogger I've read this month who, in my opinion, actually gets what really happened right:
We have only to look at what happened to the music industry to see that this is exactly the kind of step publishers should be taking. The big mistake the music business made was turning a blind eye on the fact that new technology was making it easier for artists to record and distribute their own music. They refused to try and be part of the new landscape and instead tried to fight against it. It was devastating for the industry, which has never recovered. They could have joined in and been part of the innovation and revolution; they could have had a piece of the pie. Instead they lost their shirts.
Now I don't know that I actually agree with her conclusions. It's not clear to me that the situations are truly analogous. I don't have an opinion yet on the publishing side of this, except the opinion that I'm just not knowledgeable enough to have an opinion. But this matches my memory of what happened with the music industry.
I believe that back at the turn of the century, before people were set in their ways and used to not paying for digital content, people would have greatly preferred a legal, official option for buying just the songs they wanted. People by and large want to do things the right way; they don't prefer to steal. A legal iTunes or Amazon type scheme would have worked. Instead, people rejected the RIAA's insistence that they pay for an entire album for the privilege of owning one song, but finding no legal alternative, and finding easy illegal alternatives, they turned to those instead.
I'm not defending the morality of illegal downloads; I'm simply describing reality. Illegal downloads were easy and free, and the RIAA had no competing product. By the time they started offering legal downloads, a downloading culture was in place, and it was difficult to dislodge that. (Especially when the alternative we were finally offered was iTunes, a crappy product that limited the number of devices you could hear your music on, and, at the time, prevented you from converting your purchases to MP3 without a second stage of lossy compression. When you're the last guy on the scene, an inferior product is not likely to win the masses to you.) Now you get spurious moral arguments, like "it's not stealing, it's sharing." But if the music industry had not foolishly attempted to wish the internet out of existence, I think things would have played out differently.