The Next Steps For Digital Content

Over the past two weeks, my 9-year-old daughter has purchased (with her parents’ consent) three songs from iTunes: Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles,” Sara Bareilles’ “Uncharted,” and “Safe and Sound” by Taylor Swift and The Civil Wars. None of these are played on the local pop radio station she listens to, and one of them is decidedly before her time (“A Thousand Miles” was released in 2002). She would never have known about them were it not for their being featured in YouTube videos she likes to watch—videos which, as far as the copyright holders of these songs are concerned, are using the music illegally.

There are millions of kids out there like my daughter, and it doesn’t take a young techie with an anti-SOPA banner on their Twitter page to know that such scenarios are normal, pervasive—and maybe even good for the music industry. Take the singer Neil Young, who at 66 is pretty well clued in to how things work in the digital age. “Piracy is the new radio,” he said bluntly last week, at All Things Digital’s D: Dive Into Media conference in California. “That’s how music gets around. That’s the real world for kids.”

Young’s comparison to radio is apt, because the Internet has replaced radio as the main forum for young people to be exposed to music—many of whom will buy the song they’ve just discovered (as well as other songs by the same artist). As I’ve pointed out in previous blogs, this type of sharing has always gone on (formerly through taping, which the music industry was apoplectic about in the 1980s), and is an important way for fans to discover new songs and artists.

None of which is to say media companies do not have a legitimate beef with the type of piracy that has less to do with fan enthusiasm and more with illegally profiting from another’s work. So where do these parallel trends leave us, in the post-SOPA landscape?

To manage and monetize digital content in a way that’s good for all, work needs to be done on both sides of the piracy debate.

Websites, search engines and ISPs
, for their part, must get serious about putting in place mechanisms to detect and, where appropriate, flag or weed out illegal content—whether libelous, pirated or worse (child porn, sex trafficking). Google’s ContentID system is a good example of such a mechanism. Failure to take the problem seriously will only lead to more attempts to legislate what we are allowed to see online—as the recent backlash against for their sex ads policy demonstrates. While Village Voice Media is technically correct to assert its right to host any and all content without liability (per the 1996 Communications Decency Act), to avoid further legal trouble, they need to tighten up their website monitoring standards.

Publishers and media companies, for their part, must embrace the reality (and opportunity) of the free and open Web, and not crack down on casual, social sharing of copyrighted content. Such sharing has always been good for the media industry and attempts to squelch it have always backfired, pitting businesses against their audience and facilitating new forms of piracy, rather than stemming the flow. Energy should go into prosecuting larger-scale operations, foreign and domestic, designed to profit illegally from stolen content.

Copyright holders also must not attempt to use legislation to shrink the public domain or tighten up the definition of fair use. Fair use is a critical societal resource, and attempts to chip away at it for short term gain creates a long-term loss for science, culture and the arts. This is true equally for magazine and book publishing, as argued by ClickZ’s Sean Carton in his blog 8 Obstacles That Ad-Supported E-Publishing Must Overcome.

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