Digital Downloading Comes at a Cost: Flat fee could save you from a lawsuit

Canadian news bloggers have been excited the last few weeks: it’s not every day you see a target as easy as the recording industry’s evil shills. They’ve been surfacing in Toronto to stack the deck in a series of “town hall meetings” regarding the future of Canadian copyright law, and these oleaginous disembodied suits are pushing for an American-style system – complete with six-figure fines for every illegally downloaded song. So if you’ve ever gotten music for free, this debate might interest you.

Up here, the four dominant corporate record labels call their mouthpiece the CRIA, or Canadian Recording Industry Alliance. Artists and small labels largely consider this group backwards and authoritarian. In 2006, the Songwriters Association of Canada (SAC) was formed in an attempt to reverse the damage. Bill Henderson (of Chilliwack fame), the vice president of this association, recently tabled the most reasonable suggestion that’s been heard in a while. Henderson suggests a flat monthly tax on Internet file sharers, with the proceeds going primarily to artists. A watchdog group would patrol peer-to-peer networks and locate non-paying downloaders, who will be subject to some kind of lawsuit. (Presumably with a fine under a hundred grand. Ours is a warm-hearted country.)

He’s unequivocal about his acclaim for the peer-to-peer networks. “It’s the most efficient distribution system of the largest repertoire of music ever assembled,” says Henderson. “What’s not to love about that?” If you’re dead set on monetizing file sharing, there’s an obvious advantage to this business model. While the mainstream content industry grinds its gears trying to compete with free, by endlessly building pricey online versions of its physical storefronts, services like Soulseek and BitTorrent continue to thrive. Henderson’s idea is to piggyback on the simplicity and near-perfection of pirate networks. They already exist, they have better and more diverse content than the best online stores, and they have one crucial feature: you can download whatever you want, without restrictions, period. Because they weren’t built with Big Content’s archaic restrictions in mind, they amount to the single greatest library of music ever amassed. Toss out BitTorrent for the iTunes Store? Every record store geek, everywhere in the world, is laughing.

Henderson’s system sure isn’t ideal, because it still reinforces the essential lie that free music is morally wrong. (Can you imagine A Tribe Called Quest reaming you out for borrowing their album from a friend, or hearing their songs on a mixtape?) It’s a problem of perception. Under this system, you’re not paying for a service; you’re paying for immunity from prosecution. But there’s nothing illicit about downloading an album – it’s become too universal. The breathtaking online library and its access systems aren’t going anywhere. Like physical libraries, it helps make creative culture a basic component of our everyday. The access to new music shouldn’t be considered a commodity. It’s as essential as power and water. So by all means, give me the chance to drop in ten bucks a month, and I’ll sleep easier knowing independent musicians are paying rent. But we need to kill these screeds about how downloading is a danger to music. When I get behind on my hydro bill, I don’t become a danger to electricity.

Martin Hazelbower

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