The LSE's Freetard fiasco
When creator-haters flock together
"one last fag, then bop, bop, bop" - Wolfie Smith
I've been to some strange events in my time reporting for El Reg. But yesterday at the London School of Economics I saw one of the most disturbing of all. If you thought people don't behave in real life like they do online, think again. Here were all the most unpleasant aspects of online behaviour - ignorance, rudeness, groupthink, and a general sneering moral superiority - but made flesh. By the end, it had degenerated into farce. So what was it all about?
The event was billed as "Music, fans and online copyright", and hosted in co-operation with the British Berkman clone, the Oxford Internet Institute.
Music and copyright are subjects that everyone has a stake in. But the speakers had been hand-picked by a fanatical anti-copyright Jacobin, Ian Brown. Brown drew from a narrow, ideologically homogenous group of friends. That didn't make for an enlightening debate, but it made for a good lynching party - and the afternoon would culminate in a ritual lynching, with Mr John Kennedy of IFPI lined up for the noose.
With a selection like this, unpleasantness was guaranteed. But before I describe the culmination of the day, let me describe a few of the preceding speakers.
Michelle Childs is the European end of Knowledge Ecology International, as Jamie Love's CPTech is now called. It does very good work watching Big Pharma, and looks for opportunities to use the international IP system to enable cheaper drugs, for example. This is the sort of activism that leads to lives being saved.
Now here's a funny thing. Eight years ago, Love was part of the Blur/Banff Workshops, which led to some proposals for copyright reform with the same name. These advocated a collective licence - so Joe Public could get his free music, and artists could be paid.
But Michelle must be new to all this, for she didn't mention Blur/Banff once. She had lots of slides about DRM - which now seems as distant as black and white TV.
Childs feared a "wealth transfer from consumers to intermediaries". It's hard to see what the real "wealth transfer" is when there's so much stuff to be picked up for free (I hope I haven't Pirate Bay'd my bandwidth cap this month - it saves me a bleedin' fortune! [joke]). But the implication is clear. Because we don't have to pay for anything anymore, we're being robbed blind.
(In her Powerpoint she cited "Radiohead and mash-ups" under the heading "reasons to be cheerful". Radiohead: a reason to be cheerful? I'm not joking. I don't think she was either.)
Never mind the Pollock
Next up was a gangly Cambridge graduate called Rufus Pollock. Rufus, I guessed, had not spent his gap year getting clap in Pattaya, but reading Lawrence Lessig books instead. As with most of the audience at the LSE's Old Theatre, this had nurtured a fierce sense of injustice against creators. So despite a non-functioning computer, he stormed into a bedsit rant of great righteousness. Here's a verbatim excerpt:
"There's another crucial point that gets lost in this debate here. There's also a loss, right? I mean, people keep talking about transfers and balance. The crucial thing - and I know maybe this is one insight economics has - is that every time we use a monopoly such as copyright we're basically taking out £20 notes and burning them. That is what we do. Right? We are burning that stuff. We are burrrrnning. Right?"
Flapping his arms about and pacing the stage to express his tension (which frequently took him out of microphone range) Rufus thought copyright lasted far too long. But because he was a good academic - "I'm a good academic", he told us - he needed more data. So he could disprove that copyright shouldn't last for 25,000 years, for example.
"Totally sickening er, copyright regime": Pollock
This was Dave Spart trying to motivate Citizen Smith. Rufus sounded completely out of his tree, too, like a bloke after several pints, and then a lot of medication. (You think I'm being uncharitable, but I'm not - audio to follow.)
As Rufus might reply to Rufus: "I mean, the trouble is, right, there's no money coming into this system. I mean, unless there is, we can't talk about burning £20 notes. Because they're not there, right?"
A market with no money coming into it is not a market, which makes Rufus' economics about as useful as a chocolate cliche. Er, teapot. So with no money coming in, all Rufus' economic models will ever produce is a #DIV/0! error...
Pub at 8, Revolution at 9. Rufus is on board of the Open Rights Group.
The voice of the artist?
At long last, and it was nearing 4pm, there was the voice of the artist we'd been promised. I had high hopes the "freetards" had found somebody really famous, who could without fear, rip up the rule book. This would make writing my headline easier. Who could it be? Maybe Trent Reznor. Or David Bowie. Or Dave from Blur?
But no, the freetards' artist turned out to be none other than tech writer, Wendy Grossman. As she said herself, she hadn't released a record in almost 30 years. And even back then, she added disarmingly, her Dad had described her career as "really more of a hobby". Wendy knew her folk folklore, and reeled off a long litany of tales of injustice from the folk scene.
But folkies don't get rich, appear in the charts, or get told to go to rehab, no, no no. It's an uncommercial corner of music, one that's indifferent to fashion or commercial concern, and one that will go on forever - or as long as we can attach a string to a stick. And we didn't need Wendy to tell us that. No, no, no.
The choice still puzzles me. Why choose an artist from the most non-commercial genre imaginable? Folk comes from an oral tradition, and (as Wendy said) great care is taken in passing on songs orally. It's surprising to me - and a testament to the health and depth of the recording business - that any folk music ever gets recorded at all. (Of course it does - and if you're on eMusic, get yourself to Smithsonian Folkways.)
But if you wanted a perspective on the threats and opportunities to a successful contemporary artists, you wouldn't have been any wiser - Brown really couldn't have made a more inappropriate choice. This was either an oversight, or it was by design.
I used to play amateur cricket - very amateur cricket - 20 years ago. Does this mean I'm in qualified to speak on panels about the challenges facing professional cricketers today? By this logic, I am. Move over, Freddie Flintoff!
(Wendy is on the Advisory Board of the ORG.)
The great debate
Finally to the great set piece. IFPI chief executive John Kennedy was paired with Paul Sanders, of licensed (ie, legal) P2P service PlayLouder MSP. And between them, Becky Hogge, executive director of the Open Rights Group. (Are you keeping track of ORG people? There's a quiz at the end.) They would discuss how copyright should work online".
Kennedy had listened thoughtfully to the earlier speakers, and applauded each contribution. But as the IPFI chief began to speak, the same courtesy wasn't extended to him. Tuts, hisses and groans could be heard escaping from various parts of the old lecture hall.
He said that there was an idea that artistic works were somehow society's property. "None of the artists and record producers I know believe it's society's property, any more than the house or flat is society's property."
More groans - and some of the audience began to rock backwards and forwards in their seats.
Sanders said PlayLouder MSP had formed because "the incentives were horribly misaligned" in the business. They still are, he said. If P2P was legal and licensed, providers would have an incentive to provide the music and deliver it well. The real customer experience of unmanaged P2P is lousy. The technology's lousy, too, and ISPs end up having to deal with the mess.
"It's a very ineffiencent way of distributing music" compared to the original Napster, he added.
P-MSP had material licensed from the indies, and it had a publishing license for its file-sharing ISP. But it had spent five years getting licences from three of the four majors. It had been a long haul. As he explained, this was two industries in transition, and the transition had been slow and painful for both of them. Once they'd transitioned, there would be "lots of wins" for them both.
Becky Hogge slammed DRM, and described the estimated 6m British file-sharers as "six million suggestions for how they want to consume music".
She commended P-MSP, but also Last.fm. Paul Sanders looked puzzled. Last.fm is a site where people go to hear indie music - but Last.fm has consistently (as he wrote here) refused to sign a deal with the indies, who get nothing back.
Becky concluded that the recording industry looking for protective legislation meant it was hugging old business models from the analogue age.
"Your pain... is my gain"
Then audience questions. Copyright was not granted for God, said one attendee. It didn't guarantee profits. But having heard the tales of the folk scene, we knew that.
Another attendee sang the familiar Song of the Freetard: You could give your music away for free, and start making your money from touring, publishing, sync licences and merchandising. Stuff which cannot be digitised.
(Well, duh. But of course artists can do all this now. What he was saying was that he wanted artists to surrender the right to earn money from copies of sound recordings. Which, at a time when the artist is increasingly able to own their own recordings, is a shot through the heart of the artist.)
In fact, this was a well-heeled, well-fed and priviliged audience. There's nothing the English middle-class loves more, in 2008, than making other people poorer. Or more miserable.
Kennedy used an anecdote to answer. He said he despaired that so many P2P users had gone to Pirate Bay for the new Radiohead LP, when it was free. (He actually said it was only 45p - but that isn't quite true - Radiohead scrapped the minimum, and you could download the low bitrate digital album officially for 0p.)
The P2P users could have gone out and paid £6 just to prove a point, he said, and then turn round and said to the record business: "See what losers you are - see what happens if you can get your pricing right?"
But 70 per cent had got their In Rainbows from P2P sites. Only a small fraction of the remaining 30 per cent had paid.
"It's such a depressing story - it's terrible for Radiohead, and an indication of the problems we're facing."
"I find it incredibly patronising how everybody else has the answer for what musicians want to do," said Kennedy. "Musicians are entitled to make their own decisions, and the laws of supply and demand enable artists to sign or not sign with a record company. It's never been truer than today, and there are a lot of unsigned artists who are ready for the experiment with the 6m users. But musicians expect to make a living."
Kennedy said he didn't like the "360 Model", where the record company grabs some of the income from live performance and merchandise rights. This, again, was a choice for the artist to make, as it is today. He implied that record companies have no divine right to that, and artists should choose whoever delivers the best business for them. That's not what some of IFPI's biggest members believe, but he's his own man.
An exploding Freetard
Kennedy was answering a question about how much the industry pays to fight P2P, beginning with explaining the cost, but before he could reach the end of a sentence a Freetard spontaneously combusted.
"BOLLOCKS!" shouted a very agitated man, to the great amusement of the mob.
"If you think that piracy..." Kennedy tried to continue, but the man continued to interrupt.
At last, this was the lynching the audience had been waiting for, and most were now rocking backwards and forwards with enthusiasm. Imagine a field of triffids fending off an attack by a swarm of killer bees.
"For a long time growing the industry was about concentrating attention on as few records as possible," pointed out Sanders. "There are very few records shops that had anything like 100,000 releases. Now there are many records shops that have 5m. So the record label of today is essentially competing with every piece of music that has ever been created. IT's competing with various ways of getting that, and paying for that including uncompensated means."
But he had good news, even if it came as an alien concept to the rockin' audience.
"A small number of people aren't prepared to pay for music under any circumstances - but they're really only a tiny number. It's incumbent on people like me to make a case to the people who actually own the music, and say we can do something for your business."
A questioner saw in the MSP something which could hasten the goal to which almost everyone in the audience craved.
"I'm fascinated with the PlayLouder model," she said. "But supposing you can negotiate with every record company, and offer all-you-can eat music for £15 on top of whatever access fees the ISP charges. That is functionally identical to a £15 a month tax. Which could be imposed with zero transaction costs. And we can just abandon copyright law on recorded music!"
[Much nodding, approving grunts and stifled applause.]
Er, no, Sanders pointed out. What a levy does is destroy the market. A one-time fee is set for music, and both parties (record label and ISP) simply walk away - because there's no incentive for either of them to do otherwise. The ISP doesn't have to make a better music service than a rival ISP, and the label doesn't have to make music people want. Both sides eat the seed corn of their future businesses.
The end was approaching, and I had my hand up, but Brown was determined to close out with a question from Rufus Pollock (ORG) and an answer from Becky Hogge (ORG). So Citizen Pollock asked another question about "the cost to society". Kennedy had a reply that got to the heart of the wealthy Freetards' weird sense of entitlement.
"You're confusing a luxury and a necessity. If we were talking about chicken and rice, there would be an obligation to make chicken and rice available to society. Let's put this in perspective. If there's a track you really love, and you want to buy it, and own it for life, and take it with you when you move, and play it to your children in 20 years' time to remind them of how much you loved it - then it will cost you 79p."
And that was pretty much it.
Burn the Paytards - and drink their blood
Earlier in the week, I had emailed Ian Brown to ask why the composition of the speakers was so homogenous. I hadn't received a reply.
"I know," beamed Brown, looking very pleased with himself.
Given the title of the debate - music and creator's rights - I found it odd that Sanders apart, the only active member of the music business had been Kennedy, who had so obviously been invited along as a pantomime villain: so the nerds could boo and hiss. Had Brown thought of asking creators' representatives, or smaller labels?
Event organiser, Ian Brown
Brown said he'd thought about it. But then decided not to invite them.
So the complex music business - a fascinating world of competing interests - must remain a homogenous blob, for Freetards to hate.
"And that's all I have to say to you," Brown said, marching off.
I really had to pinch myself.
Founded by the Webbs and Shaw, the London School of Economics has been home to Popper and Hayek. But Brown's modus operandi owes far more to Trotskyite groups: pack the meeting with like-minded people, who then bully the panelists. This narrows the debate down to a pre-determined conclusion. In this case, the answer to "what do we do?" is "weaken creators' rights". No ifs or buts are permitted.
So is the Oxford Internet Institute, who sponsored the event, out to widen the debate, or close it down? You be the judge of that.
(And I may be being unfair to Trots.)
The only two people to emerge with credit from this disgraceful event were the two music business people - who sit at opposite ends of the industry, yet were polite and rational throughout.
I later learned that The Exploding Man was none other David Harris, a barrister and board member of the Open Rights Group. He was bundled out of the Theatre by Becky Hogge, his arms still flapping in all directions. ®