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A Penny For Your Thoughts

Jeremy Hetherington-Gore Unleashed
19 April, 2009

The Pirate Bay judgement in Sweden last week, in which the four leaders of the download facilitation site were sentenced to one year in prison and ordered to pay SEK30mn (USD3.56mn) in damages (they have appealed), is a victory for the established music distribution industry, but it is just one skirmish in a long-term war which the old-style providers cannot win. A much more significant event during the week was the French National Assembly's rejection, against the wishes of the government, of the 'three strikes and you're out' law which would have required ISPs to switch off persistent download offenders. Just as French parliamentarians refused to bow to the authoritarian agenda of the old guard, so in New Zealand recently a popular outcry stopped the government from bringing in a similar law.

It was time that the received wisdom of the sanctity of 'the rights of copyright holders' received a jolt. In recent years, legislators around the world have been gaily extending copyright periods, introducing 'droits d'auteur', slapping fees (taxes) on the re-sale of art works and so on. These rules are anti-democratic and anti-cultural, on a level with book-burning, and are testament to nothing other than the lobbying power of the established publishing and distribution industries.

Copyright and royalty laws and structures are mostly of very modern provenance, and are a direct result and reflection of the particular distribution systems that have grown up. Although the Romans issued copyright-style privileges to booksellers, copyright in the written word didn't really have much of an impact until well after the invention of printing, and composers didn't start getting royalties until the mid-19th century. Recent as they are, however, it is absurd to try to translate these out-dated concepts into the new world of Internet distribution.

That is not to deny the rights of originators, and even to some extent distributors, to be rewarded for their labours; it is just to say that the current model is dead, and needs to be thrown out, lock, stock and barrel.

As in so many other spheres of economic activity, the Internet is disintermediating the middle-men, giving the end-consumer direct ways of accessing and enjoying the words and music she wants. That much is obvious: what is missing, or at least unclear, is the mechanism by which a market discovery mechanism can be set up through which consumers can reward originators. And originators themselves will find that the destruction of the old models of content marketing will be creative for them. There are substantial barriers to entry in many branches of publishing, as anyone knows who has tried to find a publisher for a book, or a recording company for a new group.

In the last analysis, words (literature), the graphic arts and music are types of entertainment, and the Internet will enable direct delivery of a far greater range of types of entertainment to users. Already in the first decade of the 21st century entertainment and sport are perceptibly merging into one another, and this process will continue at a rapid pace during the decades to come, as the world gets richer, and elective activities gradually come to replace more and more of what had been known (for only 400 years after all) as 'work'.

Another notable feature of the ossification of the delivery of cultural entertainment that has accompanied the growth of the copyright phenomenon in the last two hundred years is the distinction between 'professional' and 'amateur'. Amateurs might indeed sing at karaoke bars, but only professionals get paid for singing. This distinction will break down during the next 20 years as content becomes universally available through the Internet. Early examples of universal providers such as YouTube have run into copyright problems, not surprisingly, but by 2020 technology will routinely enable commercial relationships to be set up between any willing performer/consumer pair.

We can label such technology KISS (Kontent Identification and Subscription System), which will come into universal use, even in China, with the value of any given piece of content, regardless of its origin, calculated in real time based on its audience, and charged to the (compulsory) account of the user.

Content providers (call them musicians, writers, artists, or whatever) will still able to put their own price on a work, and to withhold it unless the price was paid, but hardly anyone will do so, due to the difficulty of marketing what cannot be seen or experienced in advance. Under the KISS system, the cost of experiencing a piece of content is incurred incrementally during the experience, so that if after two seconds you know you hate what you are experiencing, you just switch it off, and it has cost you very little or even nothing.

KISS technology can be applied to all forms of entertainment, including music, books, magazines, blogs, news, football, painting, and a range of new art-sport-forms which will develop under the stimulus of the new media, such as virtual beach volley-ball, which can be either watched (you pay), or participated in (you get paid).

One useful by-product of KISS will be the creation of an objective measure of an individual's 'contribution' to the common weal; and if couch potatoes come under attack in due course in the way that first smokers and now drinkers and fatties are being ostracized, it will be those individuals with high KISS ratings who get the best treatment in society and privileged access to the scarce resources of our threatened planet. Scary? Not really: it's just a way of redefining money for the coming post-capitalist world.


About the Author

Jeremy Hetherington-Gore Unleashed

Jeremy tackles the difficult issues head on!


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