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12th century thinking haunts digital music

On serfs, fanbois and bandits

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British digital music company 7Digital claimed a coup yesterday by becoming the first online music store to carry DRM-free catalog from the "Big Four" major record labels. Calling it a coup is misleading, however. It's really further confirmation that the top of the music business is run along feudal lines: closer to the 12th century than the 21st.

At the apex of this power structure is the King, with a divine right to rule - and apportion land and revenue raising concessions as he sees fit. Barons who pay the necessary fealtye may receive a generous property apportionment and collection rights - although these concessions may be withdrawn at any time.

But because the Barons were formerly Warrior Knights, and had their own private armies, the relationship was in a constant state of tension. The King feared the old Warrior Knights might be getting too uppity, or keeping too great a share of the tax collection.

Divide and rule

Five years ago the royal court permitted one baron, Apple, to launch a digital download store - but only if it bore the King's seal of DRM. Apple had its own army of "fanbois" - derived from the old Norman word for a slavishly devoted following of peasants. So iTunes went ahead with the reluctant blessing of all four major labels.

Five years ago too, you may recall, eMusic relaunched its own subscription service - but without the King's approval. Because eMusic thought DRM was lousy for its customers, it refused to take the catalog concession on offer, because it had compulsory DRM attached. eMusic also offered much better value than the iTunes concession. It meant the King may receive lower per-unit revenue, even though there would be more of it. As a result, the major labels withheld their catalogs from the service.

Pledging fealty

Negotiations with major record labels are always tricky

So 7Digital becomes the first UK music retailer to offer DRM-free catalog from all four major four labels: Universal, Warners, Sony and EMI. This, it's hoped, will provide competition for the other barons: Amazon, which hasn't yet launched in the UK yet, Apple, with its fearsome but mostly harmless army of fanbois, and Tesco, where the serfs already buy their turnips.

All this may be largely irrelevant, however. For beyond the few, safe, patrolled thoroughfares where the Barons raise their taxes, roam the hordes of "freytards" - who simply scavenge what digital music they can. And that's most of the people, finding most of the music, most of the time.

The King has belatedly realised that if the freytards continue their plunder, tax raising concessions will soon be completely meaningless. He's realised, too, that the Baron he so dismissively kicked out of Court five years ago, eMusic, now offers one of the most attractive legal alternatives to banditry: it's cheap, good value, and doesn't penalize the serfs for experimenting with new music.

Medieval lawyer writes out another copyright infringement lawsuit

A music industry lawyer writes out another copyright infringement lawsuit

(And today, most of the King's court and advisors now believe that more radical measures are needed: scrapping the divine exclusive right to make copies, in exchange for a voluntary subscription-style payment, thereby taking the freytards out of the banditry business. Publishers and independents thought that waging war against the peasants was daft in the first place.)

Alas, the punishment goes on.

eMusic continues to be withheld the vital concession that would permit it to build a mass market business: it still can't get DRM-free catalog material wholesale from the big four major labels. So eMusic is justified in viewing yesterday's 7Digital deal as a further example of anti-competitive behaviour, and perhaps longs for a fair court where its case can be heard.

But the Enlightenment hasn't happened yet, and Feudal thinking still holds sway. ®

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