Part of the Howgill Fells, with the River Lune in foreground

Content providers and content consumers: a cynic's view

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This was originally an email on the CDR list, archived here for my own narcissistic purposes. In the later discussion, others raised the issue that the term `content provider' makes (e.g.) record companies sound more honest than they really are. `Content broker' and `content middleperson' were suggested as alternatives. `Content consumer' is a misnomer, too, since -- sadly -- when John Q. Public buys a copy of some dreary Britney Spears number, he's not helping to `consume' the economic resource which Ms. Spears represents. `Any random person' is probably nearer the mark.


There follows my personal view on this; per title, it is Not Very Idealistic.

It seems to me that the whole issue is, at core, simply a conflict between the providers or creators of content and its `consumers'. In my discussion below I've typically used the example of a record company and its customers as the example content provider and consumer, but my basic points apply, I think, to other types of media. On we go:

  1. Where does the conflict arise?

    Content providers want to make more money from their content; they want to do this by using new technology to facilitate the sales of, e.g., music, while restricting the ability of the public to use content as they see fit, for instance by giving copies to their friends, especially because the same technology which they wish to exploit to sell content also makes it easy to use content in ways which the content providers have not sanctioned, and which the content providers view as prejudicing their ability to make money.

    Yes, giving copies of music to your friends is illegal under current and proposed copyright law. But this doesn't stop people doing it, however much the industry whinges about `piracy' and `copyright theft'. A man who would never think of burgling his neighbour's house or raping his neighbour's wife would borrow a CD from him and copy it without hesitation, with neither believing that they've done anything significant wrong.

    This, to my mind, is the core point of this dispute: the majority of content consumers don't care about free software, cryptography, the availability of general purpose computers, the power of large corporations or the principle that `it's my stuff, I'll do what I damn well like with it'. These are minority issues. But everyone likes to get something for nothing. The status quo makes doing this illegal, but so what?

    The only type of content which isn't habitually copied by consumers against the wishes of the content creators is the printed book, and this is only the case because copying printed books is -- in the majority of cases, anyway -- more expensive than buying new copies of the books. Whereas it's unlikely to get any cheaper to photocopy whole books, it's almost inevitable that copying arbitrary digital media will become cost effective as the costs of new types of recordable media drop (case in point: CDRs dropped in unit price from something like 12 to about 50p in the space of 5 years).

  2. How can the conflict be resolved?

  3. Which of these outcomes is more plausible?

    Well, we know that technical measures can always be defeated. If you can see it, or hear it, or whatever, you can always copy it. Yes, the quality will be lousy, but that isn't stopping people from buying camcorder-in-cinema recordings of new motion pictures. It isn't stopping them from recording their friends' CDs onto tape or their DVDs onto analogue video casettes. It won't stop them from recording `encrypted' audio streams by putting a microphone next to the speakers in their next generation hi-fi or pointing their camcorders at their HDTVs. Sophisticated technical measures haven't put a stop to banknote forgery.

    Certainly, technical measures will increase the barriers to entry for copying, but that will only serve to push it slightly further into the black market. But I don't think that mass private copying of content is going to disappear overnight just because of some lame cryptosystem.

    What about societal measures? Well, normal people who view themselves as law abiding, in the weak sense that they would be extremely indignant to find themselves in prison, still consume illegal drugs, drive over the speed limit, and copy one another's CDs. Even in the USSR, where there were severe penalties on the distribution of material not approved by the state and where the means of copying were strictly controlled, distribution of samizdat was widespread.

    I don't believe that any democratic society would tolerate the criminalisation of informal copying of content. The recent U-turn on the siting and visibility of speed cameras is, I think, indicative of the limited extent to which unpopular laws may be enforced. Why should new legislation on copyright be any different?

    The alternative is for big content providers to go bust or change their business models, and consequently stop trying to change the law to harass us. Isn't this basically what we want?

  4. How might this come about?

    Well, for all the whinging about the effect of private copying upon record company profitability, in reality, the record companies are doing Just Fine Thank You (unless they pick up an act which turns out to be a complete dud, but nobody is accusing these people of having 20:20 foresight in musical taste).

    Will private copying ever seriously affect the profitability of the content providers? Well, it hasn't yet, despite the absence of the extremely repressive copyright law which the content providers would like to implement. Sure, the record companies will go out of business if, after paying $20,000,000 to sign Generic Youth Band 2003, only one person in the world buys their CD -- the remainder of the market refraining from doing so either because they've already got a copy from Napster, or on the more plausible grounds of artistic taste -- but in reality this isn't going to happen.

So, as far as I can see, this conflict will go on forever. Even worse, the vast majority of content consumers don't and won't ever care about the subtle issues surrounding personal freedom in its wider sense, technical innovation, privacy and so forth. Worse, since content providers are likely to carry on driving `innovation' in the legislative sphere, we will always be on the defensive.

I have no idea what we can do about this. I'm not sure that previous successful campaigns -- such as the ghastly Brent Spar thing -- provide a model: it's easy to boycott one vendor of a commodity, since there are always others. If you need petrol and won't buy it from BP, you can always buy it from Shell. But if you want the new single from Generic Youth Band 2003, you will only be able to buy it from AOLTimeWarnerJKRowling or whoever. Or copy it from your friends-- but that's not a useful protest: if BP suddenly starts selling 0.5% less petrol because of a protest, they'll take notice. But if AOLTimeWarnerJKRowling starts selling 0.5% fewer copies of a single, who knows, that might just be because the band is lame.

I'd dearly like to be more positive about all this, but I haven't seen any cause to be. Perhaps I'm too negative....

Copyright (c) 2002 Chris Lightfoot. All rights reserved.