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Thursday, July 08, 2010

Don't Kill The Popcorn Vendor!

There's been a bit of a kerfuffle online lately as Dr. Michael Geist took a chunk out of Loreena McKennitt's recent op-ed in the Winnipeg Free Press because she dared to state that "Pirates are killing Musicians, Composers, Lyricists and even Popcorn Vendors".

Now, yes, the title of her piece -- which I'm guessing is supposed to be inflammatory -- is kind of dumb.

But it's the content that Dr. Geist barely dips into and I suspect that's because, as a content creator, Ms. McKennitt makes some great points.

In fact, Dr. Geist basically takes the title of her article and runs with it throughout his rebuttal.

"The piece raises at least a couple of issues. First, there is the claim that "even popcorn sellers are struggling to stay alive" in light the current state of Canadian copyright law. This claim arises from some declining interest in big music tours, which is taken as evidence that performances are not a viable alternative for many musicians. What copyright reform has to do with concert venues, performers or popcorn sellers is anyone's guess - promoters of struggling music tours say it has everything to do with a tough economy, competition for the entertainment dollar, and high ticket prices rather than music downloads or IP enforcement. Copyright reform won't change the financial dynamics of the touring industry, which will presumably still leave those same popcorn vendors struggling to stay alive."

Now, first of all, while I don't agree with everything that Ms. McKennitt has to say here, Dr. Geist has widely missed the point she was trying to make.

From the op-ed:

"The creative community is working hard to turn its fortunes around by offering new ways for consumers to enjoy our work online, for instance. But making the necessary investments is impossible when piracy means the investments may never be recouped. Years of training, hard work and past investment by individuals, businesses and government can be rendered valueless because copyright laws have not been enforced.

Some people suggest that artists can make up their losses by touring all the time or hawking T-shirts. But this is viable only in a few specific instances and creates huge challenges for those with family obligations. Even now, parts of the touring industry are also starting to see their business erode.

As a result, many venues, promoters, local crews and even popcorn sellers are all struggling to stay alive.

What we have here is a content creator speaking honestly of her fears - talking about how smaller acts just don't have the time or ability to be touring all the time to make the 'real money' one would normally get from CD sales.

Essentially, what she's saying is that for small acts, acts of piracy hurt that much more. Yes, one might (normally) be able to do more live shows to make up the difference but is it fair for them to have to do that much more work -- be away from families and loved ones, etc -- in order to make a fair living?

Especially considering the amount of time and money put into creating that CD in the first place?

What I'm reading here isn't the clueless words of some greedy artist, I'm seeing someone voice their own legitimate frustrations at the state of something beyond their control.

As if getting screwed by the record companies wasn't bad enough, imagine being stuck in that position where not only are you getting reamed on each CD sale, you're actually selling less CDs because some kid can pop on Limewire (or hundreds of other sites or programs) and download your songs for free.

Or, in the case of true independents, having invested all that money out of your own pocket -- money to hire sound engineers and musicians and printers and artists and more -- only to find yourself unable to recoup those costs (let alone make a profit) because of those people who buy a legitimate copy then rip the tracks and put them online.

Yes, one could make the point that more people get to hear your music and that's great, but that doesn't directly correlate to increased record sales -- especially if people only like a few tracks. (We can discuss iTunes and their tenancy towards artist bum-molestation later...).

But Dr. Geist doesn't tackle those legitimate concerns. He cherry-picks the parts of her article that support his position; taking a small, localized argument -- hey, maybe Ms. McKennitt DOES know some small town popcorn vendors who're hurting -- and blowing it up to an absurd scale (that all popcorn vendors are doomed).

And while I don't entirely agree with her on her interpretation of 'user rights', she does make a good point that

"many things the public wishes to do with what they purchase can all be accomplished within the framework of permissions and limited copying for personal use."

Which is true. By and large, if you're copying something for yourself, for personal use, you're in the clear. You can even modify it and play with it a tad under 'fair dealing' but there are limits.

And, yes, the current wording of the 'digital lock' strategy is too harsh but again, she goes on to specifically point out that

"In my small business, we grant permissions for educational, charitable and other uses on a regular basis".

Ie: Call her, talk to her and explain what you want to do with her work and things can often be figured out. At least that's what I'm hearing.

And, yes, while I recognize that a lot of the 'digital lock' strategy is out there largely to benefit Copyright aggregators (hello, RIAA!) I also understand that, hey, people gotta eat too... and that's why I think smaller, independent acts/performers, need that much more protection under the Copyright Act.

How do we go about that? I'm not sure, but perhaps that's something that the eminent (and I do mean that without sarcasm) Dr. Geist could be helping with; Finding a way to protect the end user while also ensuring that the person who invested their time and money to create that content gets suitably compensated as well.

There has to be a way to create a fair path through the middle of this issue.

But as it stands right now, after reading both articles, I feel like Ms. McKennitt stood up to voice her own concerns and Dr. Geist just brushed her aside with a waving finger and a terse "Shh! This isn't about you".

And that, to me, is a problem.


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