Piracy or Marketing?

Linux is often mentioned in discussions on Intellectual Property (IP) and the protection thereof. The reason is two-fold. First, the Linux platform is often seen as the “Wild West” where there are no (enforceable) laws. The perception is that Linux makes it easier to pirate software, music, video and other digitized IP products. Unlike the analog piracy of the past, there is no (or imperceptibly little) degradation in the quality of the copy with respect to the original.

Second, Linux itself defies the very concept of IP protection due to the OpenSource philosophy held by its development community. Some believe that OpenSource advocates illicitly extend this philosophy to other, non-Open products – that they actually believe all products are intellectually-free – and therefore, that they do not and will never respect the true ownership of IP.

Now, I said all of that as a segway into this very non-Linux story. A British band out of Devon, England called Show of Hands admits in an interview that they depend “utterly” on piracy viral marketing to support ticket and album sales. I mulled this story over for a while and came to realize that this band is to the recording industry what a shareware developer is to the software industry.

A small band, Show of Hands probably does not enjoy nearly the amount of radio airtime as, say, Metallica. This means that album sales rely much more heavily on concert attendance and I’d venture to guess that concert ticket revenues constitute a much higher percentage of the band’s total revenues than for bigger names. Like shareware companies, tolerating some piracy actually earns them more money than preventing it outright.

Let’s look at the other side of the coin. A big-name band does receive a lot of airplay, which can translate into fewer tours (if they like). Concert venues, being oppressively spatial in nature, can hold a limited number of humans safely and the band usually has a minimum return in mind; thus the ticket price is adjusted to allow just the right number of real fans to enjoy the performance first-hand. Not everyone can see the show, but everyone can buy the band’s albums on CD. For many bands, CD sales far outweigh concert revenues, so piracy is a much bigger threat to the band’s monetary success, especially considering that sound quality is not sacrificed. Albums re-released on CD probably sold well on cassette and possibly in LP format as well. Some groups like to repackage old material into “Greatest Hits” albums and other compilations, sometimes adding one or two “new cuts” to keep old fans buying. Like big software shops, big bands like to lock you in and repeatedly resell to you.

Enter the RIAA and other IP groups who claim to have the protection of the artists at heart. Like legislators, these groups want to represent their constituents, but all too often the only folks they get to talk to are the lobbyists and the influential. The “best interests” of the recording industry and the artists themselves begin to look a lot like what the big guys want. Forget that the small bands may be able to use viral marketing to their advantage. I know, nothing is stopping them from “giving away” their IP if they choose to do so, right?

Wrong. So-called “digital media rights” must somehow be managed to protect IP (read: imposed, because legal punishment is obviously not an effective deterrent) and technological controls are increasingly replied upon to achieve this. If it becomes illegal or highly cost-prohibitive to own or operate equipment free of IP protection functionality, the small band will have no choice but to conform, eliminating one of its most effective marketing strategies. This constitutes a barrier to entry for competition, strengthening the resale potential of established big-name bands.

What does this mean for Linux? It seems that the creators of codecs and IP protection software are reluctant to share their algorithms with the Linux community, the most-likely reason being the fear of the “Wild West” described above. If you don’t want stuff stolen from your gym locker, don’t write the combination of your lock on the door, right? The IP folks probably won’t budge on this point unless the Linux community can be trusted (read: controlled).

One last thought – if music piracy is such a big problem and Windows+Mac still has 95% or more of market share, I really don’t see how Linux is the root of that problem (no pun intended).

-Brandon

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2 responses to “Piracy or Marketing?”

  1. Greg says :

    Show of Hand’s strategy isn’t new…The Offspring (american grunge/punkish band) did this years ago and Radiohead offered their last album for whatever you wanted to pay…including $0.

    People need to continue supporting their rights to download and share open source/ public domain/ Creative commons music, software and graphics.

  2. Bobby says :

    This may be a little off topic not sure…but
    where is the best place to find resell rights
    or private label rights?

    Thx…

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