howmusicgotfree

How did we get to a point where piracy is the default? What drives the millions who consume without paying, without even considering it? How did their tools and methodologies come into being? The answers are varied, often simplistic, largely informed by ideology, experience and financial status.

The most important learning from How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt is that the reality is complex. The tools of the piracy trade were created and diffused for commercial reasons. The very weapons that threaten intellectual property were created because of its incentives. The music industry, like so many that have been thoroughly disrupted, was more focused on protecting its turf than serving customers.

The story of recent music piracy is largely that of the mp3. Much of Witt’s book is a sweeping explanation, from its troublesome birth to its role as a technological enabler – its compression making internet distribution possible, its adoption begetting the vicious circle of iPods, ripping, sharing and networks. One of the biggest names in pirate history – Napster, makes an appearance only briefly, 114 pages into the book.

Until then we are treated to the story of the mp3’s inventors, a team of German engineers, and its investors, the German government and a few corporations. They weren’t trying to create a tool for piracy. Rather, they were trying to fix a very real problem with audio compression. To that end they created a new audio standard, one adopted for countless legitimate uses. But it was also adopted by the pirates – mp3’s allowed for music files a twelfth the size of what had come before, which was essential in a world of dial-up.

This is the hilarious contradiction at the heart of Witt’s history of music piracy; the technology that has arguably done most to make it possible – the mp3, was only created because of the promise of the monopoly rents afforded by intellectual property rights. While the mp3 helped bypass the copyright of musicians and labels, bringing an industry to its knees, its creators walked away with hundreds of millions of dollars.

It also doesn’t seem like the actual pirates made much either. Sure, Witt tells the stories of a pirate here, and a syndicate there, who were doing so commercially. But as with many such syndicates on the internet, the driving forces seem to be community, discovery, and the breaking down of technical barriers. Napster wasn’t intended to be commercial, having a weird business model bolted onto it halfway through. Neither were Oink, the Pirate Bay or BitTorrent.

Its where all these pieces fit together that I think the most important point is made – technology, consumers and pirates were all coming together to make a better experience that the industry wanted nothing to do with. The industry wanted to remain in a world of scarcity, forcing users to buy bundles. As the internet began to offer an unlimited selection of music, on demand, the industry dragged its feet and refused to offer a comparable product – the mp3 inventors had pitched a streaming service but were knocked back, Steve Jobs had to fight for the iTunes store.

Yet the consumers obviously demanded such a service. Torrent networks have created networks of millions, braving the unknown to listen to what they want when they want. Piracy cut across age groups and demographics, something made evident by the wide variety of people prosecuted by the industry as they sought to protect the old business rather than embrace a new one. It was only after being resoundingly beaten that the industry moved, offering its consumers a comparable experience that they could pay for – Vimeo, Spotify, the iTunes store. And pay for it they have.

I come to this topic, obviously, from a position of sympathy for piracy. When my friends and I were younger – far from being adults, we participated. While our pocket money would only stretch so far for movies and music, I don’t believe this was what drove us. It was selection. Buying a whole album for the the two songs we wanted is ridiculous. Especially with an iPod to fill. And as time has passed, the reduction in piracy has mirrored the availability of media. Why would anyone bother to brave the wild west of torrenting when Spotify, Youtube, Netflix and numerous other services offer such variety and quality at such low prices? There just isn’t any need to do it anymore. If only the music industry had gotten on board sooner.

Title: How Music Got Free
Author: Stephen Witt
Pages: 296 (Hardback)