14 July 2010

ASCAP battling windmills

image by Wild Guru Larry, click for source attributionOPINION: A little while ago, ASCAP, one of the US based performance royalty collecting societies became the latest volunteer in an increasingly amusing battle to turn back time long after others have already moved on. Quite frankly, I see this attack as being more dangerous to windmills than to the creative commons infrastructure and movement. And I feel sorry for the level of intellectual helplessness this attack implies.

Larry Lessig (one of the founders of some of the organizations ASCAP is vilifying) has his own response and challenge showing levels of truth and humor that the ASCAP attack so sadly lacks.

I publish stuff under creative commons licenses. Like this article. Or a little music with friends I've made online.

For me creative commons licenses are a gift by a bunch of nice lawyers and the people and organizations helping and donating to their cause, who wrote a number of template contracts (licenses) for free. Cool - I didn't have to hire a lawyer to write me a custom contract.

And because they have done that, content creators like me have these blanket contracts, which are reasonably well thought out and crafted, allowing us to protect our copyrights by setting conditions of use for our works. Contrary to what ASCAP says, Creative commons licenses are built totally within copyright concepts and law. Without it, they don't make sense.

Creators generally have a number one priority: get heard, seen and felt. Creative commons licenses quite possibly have stemmed the tide of stuff that might by now implicitly or explicitly go public domain, if that was the only way for an artist to get heard. So maybe ASCAP should be grateful to the Creative Commons and start idea generating dialogs rather than attacks.

However, all that being said, I understand the underlying pain ASCAP is feeling. It's the pain many an industry has gone through, as the product it produced became inexpensively available in higher quantities than the market needs. It doesn't take a degree in economics to know that individual revenues tend to go down when supply exceeds demand.

And here is where ASCAP gets it so wrong. ASCAP's enemy isn't the people who write a bunch of template licenses. Or at the very least they are not the only (nor even the first) enablers of this oversupply of music. The enablers of the oversupply of music include computer makers, the oh so very bad Internet, the writers of software (many of whom also give away (some) of their work for free!), makers of planes and ships who carry people and goods all over the world exchanging ideas and culture. And maybe above all, the oversupply of music is caused by the fact that so many people have some free time to create music. Some of it is even pretty good. And some of it is incredibly good. So you got more music than the market will bear. That brings down prices.

Of course that's hard to stomach for the people who got used to certain revenue levels, that are now shrinking. Sorry, but that's they way things go. And ASCAP isn't the first to feel that pain. Just a few years ago, software makers have been down that road brought on by pretty much the same technological advances and other societal evolutions. And the good one's have reinvented the industry. And make oodles of money in good part by writing software. Programming didn't become an extinct profession. Music composition won't either.

If ASCAP was smart, it would try to figure out how to align itself with the new reality of musical oversupply and create mechanisms that would make money for composers and publishers in the new reality rather than raising money for battles with falsely perceived enemies.

Why isn't ASCAP the organization who invents nifty ways of easily licensing music online, self serve and for prices that the market will bear? If a small label like Magnatune can do it, why not ASCAP? Why doesn't ASCAP offer a huge global online self-serve database service for compositional copyright registration and licensing? Or partner with someone. Or write a specification, so that service providers, labels and others could create something that inter-operates. Something that easily interacts with other royalty streams. There's a ton of good work waiting to be done by someone with industry insight and a true service commitment to their membership. Automobile Associations (also membership based) have evolved - why not ASCAP?

This is 2010, not 1914. The ASCAP founders did some breakthrough and novel thinking suitable to their times. Music creators could really use some of that forward thinking leadership now. Why wouldn't ASCAP want to provide that? And raise money for winning ideas embracing the present and the future rather than fighting loosing battles with imaginary enemies?