Why we still fight about music and copyright on the Internet

My latest Locus colum, "Music: The Internet’s Original Sin," asks why music copyright is such a hot potato on the Internet, even in the post-DRM age, when most tunes are $0.99 on Amazon in MP3. The short answer: music's ancient compact is not entirely compatible with contemporary commerce, and the industry has tried to "fix" this by just telling us that everything we know about the legitimate way to enjoy, produce and share music is wrong.

Let’s start with music’s age. Movies are still in their infancy. Books are in their middle age. Stories themselves are ancient. But music is primal. Books may predate commerce, but music predates language. Our relationship with music, and our social contracts around it, are woven into many other parts of our culture, parts that are considered more important than mere laws or businesses. The idea that music is something that you hear and then sing may even be inherent to our biology. I know that when I hear a catchy tune, I find myself humming it or singing it, and it takes a serious effort of will to stop myself. It doesn’t really matter what the law says about whether I am ‘‘authorized’’ to ‘‘perform’’ a song. Once it’s in my head, I’m singing it, and often singing it with my friends. If my friends and I sing together by means of video-sharing on YouTube, well, you’re going to have a hard time convincing us that this is somehow wrong.

Cory Doctorow: Music: The Internet’s Original Sin



  1. Before the CD format, file compression, and Napster, friends and I would each chip in to buy a single vinyl LP. We then pass the album around – while it was in relatively pristine condition – and record the music on reel-to-reel or cassette tape recording machines, then passing the LP on to another friend, who’d do likewise.

  2. Exactly why do we fight about music  and copyright? Most classic music styles can be recreated algorithmically and most new music is literally sliced from the past and diced in a blender. Just the couple dozen plus subcategories of rave music that are fought over rabidly ad nauseam yet all sound ALIKE(!) should be enough to set you straight that music as a category has died.

    1. I love that sweeping statement that “most classic music styles can be recreated algorithmically”.  Hell, even Bach understood that – but if you think you can get a computer to compose the Goldberg Variations, then you’ve got another think coming.

      1. I didn’t say “classical”, I said “classic”. Meaning jazz, country, blues, powerpop, doo-wop etc. All of these can be distilled to a formula.

        1. Hmmm.  Well I guess if you want to take that position, nothing I say is likely to dissuade you, other than to note that I do not see a distinction between categories – as Duke Ellington said, there are only two sorts of music: good music and bad music (I imagine from your original comment that you consider all of the subcategories of rave music to be “bad music”.) 
          But I’d sure like to see your formula, as I presume you have rendered all composition redundant.

          1. Try Band In A Box.

            Anyway, all these genres tend to have favored instruments. You just can’t have garage without a Vox or Farfisa or surf without reverb that pongs and single coil pickups. Once you have the instruments down, then it’s a simple matter to imitate a style with slight variance from established songs. It’s easy, after all many artists did exactly the same thing in order to have a second hit.

            Submitted for your approval, try:


            On the surface, Adam Schlesinger seems to have written a brand new theme song for the current Kathy Griffin talk show, but scratch below, and you notice it is just rebranded merseybeat. Clever, huh?

            So whether music consists of covers from the past, or treads the same ground as the past or breaks new ground by throwing slag into a cauldron of noise (that Olympic theme comes to mind), then the only rational conclusion is that listening to music with hopefulness is the equivalent of flogging a dead mule.

        2.  Distilling a style to a formula is a far cry from creating music. This is the reason we like to hear different artists play the same song. The unique interpretation of the theme is art.
          Take the song Jersey Girl for example. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s fan favorite song was written and also performed by Tom Waits. No algorithm or formula can adequately explain the difference between each artists version of the song. There is the soul and heart with which artists imbue their work that does not lend itself to cold analysis. It is also the reason why different people like Tom and others like Bruce.

    2. Try MDMA.  You will instantly understand why Deadmau5 is interesting (despite his own self-righteous rejection of the drug that made him), without losing any love for classical music.  By the same token, you’ll understand the appeal of Phish better once you’ve smoked.  If music sounds crappy sober (just about anything labeled “psych” on pitchfork), you can rest assured that it is either informed by, about, or best appreciated with a particular drug.  Until you have tried that drug, you should reserve judgment.  If you’re really into judgment in general, though, I think there are other URLs on the Interwebs than BB.  Can’t be sure though, as I’ve never been.  

          1. Not really. Suicide was a band in the early 70s and A Group Called Murder is a band that formed mere months ago. Pretty hard to confuse.

          2. I have no idea what you’re arguing about, but I’m fairly certainly that using Ke$ha as an example is a default loss.

      1. Don’t do it! Drugs ruined the Beatles for me. They never sounded as good afterwards.

      2. I’m sure you’re right, though I wouldn’t know.  However, I enjoy the Grateful Dead without the aid of drugs, and I think Phish sucks big time. 

        It’s possible to create music informed by, about, or best appreciated under the influence of psychedelics that is also actually good music that can be appreciated sober.

    3.  Wow.  Music as a category has died?  It’s good we have an expert who can set us straight.

      So, for those of us who used to like music, what should we like now?

      1. No real alternative. However, if you continue to persist, you will realize the pleasure of listening to new music will have constantly diminishing returns and listening to old music will reduce you to nostalgic tears.

        1. That has nothing to do with music. That has to do with getting old in a really kids-get-off-my-lawn way, and losing the ability to appreciate anything except lost youth.

      1. No, I am just saying copyright and it’s violation is a nonentity because listening to music is a soul-sucking experience, the very act of which is a penalty in and of itself. The last 100 years of reproducible musical content within our living spaces on call 24/7, destroyed any novelty and creativity due to the quantity and supply of music needed to satisfy demand.

        At this point, with CAMC (computer aided music creation – think like CASE or CAD) anything from the past can be reproduced or extended by formula. Anything new is simply the jumble of snippets and styles run through a vegematic, like scientists splicing random DNA to see what kind of mutants they can create.

        It isn’t just technology that has cut the worth of music. Every new song, every new piece of music has helped to devalue the entire aggregate of all recorded music. Oddly enough, the moment copyright started a long term slide to no value, is the exact moment when music could be recorded, stored and reproduced on a consumers whim. When the only supply of music was via musicians in real time, that’s when music had its greatest value.

        Think of music as a money supply, and think of the music industry as endlessly inflating that supply until that supply is so bloated as to be valueless. It may take another 50 years, but at some point even musicians and songwriters will realize that copyright protects very little except for a favored less than 1% of artists and even their jobs (like most other work on this planet) will be taken over by autonomous machines.

        This whole little legal wrangle over copyright will seem like momentary farce.

        Next up films. Let’s start a poll. Anybody want to venture whether, on a total basis, we have passed, are passing, or will soon pass peak quality of film? Is it an accident we are bumping up at the limitations of this just as we are for natural resources? Maybe our time is spent and a creation we let loose will be the next new order. Anybody want to guess, on a worldwide basis, whether we passed peak intelligence?

        1. (i think my post got eaten…apologies if this is a double post)

          If you look at anything from the right angle, you can suck all meaning out of it. You’re looking at modern music as meaningless compared to what’s come before, and extrapolated that no meaningful music will ever be created again, right? Because it’s all been done before?

          Music is about evoking emotional reactions and has a vast number of ways of doing it, one could argue that even “novel” styles of music are still hitting the same old parts of the brain, so aren’t really novel at all. “Wow, this irish folk song makes me feel happy and like drinking with friends!” “Wow, this cheesy metal song makes me feel happy and like drinking with friends!” “Wow, this catchy electronic track…” etc

          It’s impossible to listen to all the music made, so different cultures/groups/individuals are going to have their own musical language based on their limited experience with music.  Which means there’s always going to be creators who create things unlike anything they’ve ever heard before, and listeners who fall in love with things unlike anything else. Maybe if they theoretically had listened to every musical creation ever they could say “Pfft, heard it”, but otherwise *it’s impossible to differentiate between something that people think is novel, and something that genuinely is*.

          Add to that the fact that music technology keeps advancing, meaning that we literally have new raw materials from which to make music that have never happened on earth before – new textures, new instruments, even new algorithms for making computer-composed music. Globalisation means our musical vocabulary is vastly bigger than ever before in human history. I think this is a mind-bendingly awesome time for music.

          But again, you can also say “Yeah, they’re still using the same 12 tones, or if not it’s because they’re just another noise musician”. Each to their own!

        2. Tracer Tong:  JC!!!!!   The net’s going black!  We’ll live in villages…we’ll start again!  Find me JC!  Find me!
          ….And then, when JC Denton destroyed the Aquinas Router and set the world back into the dark ages, music ceased to suck and Yacko was finally at peace.  Music was local.  Musicians were visible.  The harmonic bliss reigned FOREVER.

  3. Why beat around the bush?  This article should be about porn.  Primal, ephemeral, demand, two-to-three minute digestion.  All the same things that will make music a never-ending battle.  You seem to disdain the pornographers-cum-copyright trolls in particular, and over ‘regular’ copyright trolls.  So why is this article about music?  Because it’s more important?  Is it even?  I’m sure more porn changes hands per second than any other content on the Internet, across every medium.  Squeamish much? (Ugly endings to Internet comments are, weirdly, going to be the thing that finally saves me from my double-space-after-the-period bug. Tre ugly.)

    1. Maybe music is the better choice because you are less likely to get unwanted malware at music sites?

  4. Looks like a well-thought-out article (as I’d expect from Cory), but the Brahms-Beethoven point is absurd. No one really calls Brahms’s first symphony “Beethoven’s 10th”, and when the reference is made, it’s on two points: (1) Beethoven’s symphonic legacy was so great that it supposedly intimidated Brahms, and complicated his writing of his first symphony; and (2) the main theme of the Brahms last movement (occupying maybe 3% of the whole symphony’s duration) sounds a little like the “Ode to Joy” theme. That’s it!

    1. And I’ll add that the Brahms theme only resembles Beethoven’s if your memory of Beethoven’s is very foggy.

      Brahms was a very different composer from Beethoven in that Brahms could write great melodies.  Beethoven struggled with melody his whole career.

      “dit-dit-dit-DAH”…  Beethoven was a genius to get good mileage out of that, but it ain’t much of a melody.

      Brahms’ 1st will be mistaken for music of Beethoven only by people who really can’t tell one classical piece from another.  I have met such people: “Isn’t it, like, violin stuff?”

      Calling Brahms’ 1st “Beethoven’s 10th” was really a comment by dopes who thought they were honoring Brahms with such a comparison.

      Brahms is fully deserving of his copyright on his first symphony and on his others too.

      1.  Yes, he is.  But will extending copyright protection now encourage Brahms to produce more symphonies?  Because if it won’t, then there’s no legal need.

  5. Once upon a time there was a studio executive who said that the VCR would be the end of the movie industry, a statement that couldn’t be farther from the truth. And I’ve heard that MP3s etc. have destroyed the music industry. If only it were true, then we could all stop telling Nickelback to STFU! Did everyone forget that the modern music industry was based on free distribution on the radio to get people interested? And ever since the the advent of home audio recording, people have been making tapes of radio music. This all coincided with the first generation of rock and roll multimillionaires. Quite frankly, I don’t think there’s a damn thing to worry about. Some people look at a situation like this, adapt, and make a fortune, like Louis CK.

  6. i feel art, like software, is best shared. art comes from, contributes to, and imo belongs to, the community. the right is share, reproduce, and remix are vital to the continual evolution of art. taking someone else’s work, reproducing it, then making it your own (not by just labeling it your own but improving upon it, adding your own flare and style.) grows the industry. it allows would be artists to make something and to get better and eventually get to the point that other people are making things off their works. that’s how art SHOULD be. whether it’s music,literature,manga, painting, sculpture, film, video games, or applications. when you make something it no longer belongs to you, it belongs to the community its part of the culture now.

    this is why i feel copyright should go back to how it was, in america, at the start: 14 years with the possibility of adding 1 more 14 year period for a maximum of 28 years. then its in the public domain and anyone can use it, i also feel it should be up to the creator of the art to press suit or to allow the infringement. copyright was meant to be a means to reward those who give back to the community by making something, it was meant to foster art but now its a means to suppress it.rather than being a short period to make money off of the art its a means to make money off it FOREVER (or at least the lifetime of the artist +70 years..also i think thats the average natural lifetime,or the amount of time they live whichever is longer…so if they are shot at 20 they still have 35 years+70) this fosters a sense of “make something once and live off it for the rest of your life” this does nothing to repay the community. this isnt fair. the method i mentioned above is fair and it means all those things you grew up on (assuming you are older than 14) you could make things using them. and if little big planet shows anything: people really like making mario games.

  7. Yes, music is primal, tribal and maybe even biological. That I can agree with. Then it goes a bit off the rails.

    No one is suing anybody for humming a tune. Or banging a can or strumming an acoustic guitar around a camp fire. Well, not yet. Carreon has some free time on his hands now that The Oatmeal ordeal is over. The problem becomes in that music became monetized when technology allowed it to be recorded. That technology costs money. A mixing board of any decent quality can run to be hundreds of thousands of dollars. A microphone can run five thousand dollars. You pay for craftsmanship. The construction of specialized architecture. The rent of the space. The salaries of the skilled engineers that man the helm.

    On top of that, you pay for the marketing, tour support, etc., etc. so you can even know these acts exist to use that old fall back of supporting the artist by buying concert tickets and merch. Otherwise, good luck wading through the muck. Or missing out on concert experiences because musicians would not financially be able to get out of a city or region.

    There is a whole ecosystem, jobs, etc. that exists to produce quality recordings. That is where “free culture” eventually goes off the rails, because if you do not support that ecosystem it goes away. No more music other then little Kevin who just got his first Mac with Garageband. Man, you thought Nickelback and Black Eyed Peas are bad, wait until you hear his dubstep covers!

    The punishment does not justify the crime ($150,000 per track?). The crime does not justify draconian legislation like SOPA/PIPA/ACTA. As is the case with almost all current industries, depending on where you fall along the political spectrum, an arguement in regards to excessive executive compensation can be made. The Big 4 suffer from trying to hang on to margins that are no longer realistic and thats when you get assinine crap we see going on.

    Guys like Trent Reznor aren’t railing against paying for music. He’ll gladly sell you any one of a dozen configurations of a release. He does rail against greed though. Almost no one has replicated any kind of independent success that has not first made us aware of their existance thanks to the resources of a well-funded label. TVT fucked him as hard as much as they helped let us known Nine Inch Nails even exists. Amanda Palmer can raise an easy million on Kickstarter because Roadrunner supported The Dresden Dolls is.

    You aren’t paying for music. You are paying for a recording. You are paying for the medium through which music is recorded and distributed. Big difference.

    1. The problem becomes in that music became monetized when technology allowed it to be recorded

      Music really began to become a commodity long before that, when technology allowed sheet music to be widely produced and sold. Sheet music ‘piracy’ was notoriously prevalent in the 19th century.

      No more music other then little Kevin who just got his first Mac with Garageband.

      There’s an awful lot of space between the ‘top’ studios and the bedrooms- there are plenty of small independent studios still out there.

      As ever, it’s still possible for musicians to make a living by playing live, and selling merchandise (including self-funded recordings)- and this will continue (and possibly increase) if & when ‘that ecosystem’ withers away.

      1. The term “record” is not limited to audio by the English language. My statement surely covers sheet music which also had to be recorded, distributed and marketing in the same way audio recordings are.

        As someone who has worked with many of those “Small independent studios”, most of them are going the same way as the mom & pop record shop. Even the big boy studios as well. Even the small ones on modest equipment at the barely passing the line between “guy with his laptop” and “real studio” incur significant costs that come under fire when someone refuses to economically support a product that brings them value.

        Very few musicians make a decent enough living playing live. Most of them are top-tier and label backed, whether it is Sub Pop or Interscope. Its a pipe dream. Most can barely get gas to the next gig, or its completely out of the question if they enjoy anything beyond sleeping on their friends couch or in a 20 year old van. Possible, yes, but most of the artists people pay to go see live beyond the cover band playing at the corner bar on a Friday night that is just background music to you getting wasted is backed by promotion, which costs money.

    2. “Or banging a can or strumming an acoustic guitar around a camp fire.”
      Youtube is the modern-day campfire and people get their legitimate covers taken down all the time.

      “Almost no one has replicated any kind of independent success that has not first made us aware of their existence thanks to the resources of a well-funded label.”

      I notice you include the caveat “almost” as a weasel-word to get out of having to counteract responses like mine. The reason not a great number  of examples of such artists exist is because record labels used to be the ONLY form of distribution. That has changed. I don’t accept your ‘wading through muck’ idea. Almost all of the best music I have discovered has been on the advice of friends or random illegal downloads that I thought sounded interesting.

      Furthermore I strongly disagree with your contention that supporting an artist via tours and merch is not a viable way of bands making money. I accept I may be the exception not the rule but I have personally spent untold sums of money on seeing artists live… magnitudes more than the average person would spend on CDs/records in a lifetime. Then there’s this: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/illegal-downloaders-spend-the-most-on-music-says-poll-1812776.html

      1. YouTube is a corporate owned, advertising supported mass distribution platform. It is not a campfire. Is your life that void of non-digital human contact that you cannot discern between the two? If so, head to the beach, head to the state park campgrounds, meet some good-hearted strangers and hope they aren’t cannibals.

        I didn’t make the contention that touring and merch is not a viable way of bands making money. My statement wasn’t vague in the least for it to be taken that way. For top tier acts those revenue streams are cash cows. For most it is a money losing proposition. As clearly stated above, most people do not go see a band that hasn’t had significant promotional support, tour support, etc. to build them up to be able to make a living via these revenue streams. Sorry, the local band is not leaving the area or can afford to once their 30 friends they bugged with 700 Facebook invites to go see them on a Wed. night is done. In the 12 or so years since Napster and the mainstreaming of the internet, the only band that has modestly done this independently (and lasted for about five minutes) was Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

  8. The entertainment industry has opposed every introduction of new new media formats. My favourite is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=up863eQKGUI. Best 90s politically correct rap every.

    1.  Thank you. That is such a fucking sick vid that it really needs to be everywhere. I really mean it. If I ever start up a blog, this thing will lead :)

  9. All the same things that will make music a never ending battle.  you seem to disdain the pornographers cum-copyright trolls in particular, and over ‘regular’ copyright trolls.  So why is this article about music?  Because it’s more important?  Is it even?  I’m sure more porn changes hands per second than any other content on the Internet, across every medium.  Squeamish much?

  10. We shouldn’t have to  fight over something like this, because it’s very simple; the decision is up to the peeps creating the music to decide whether they want to give it away for free or sell it. Nobody else can make that decision, no matter how right or wrong they are, or strong their argument might be.

  11. @Yacko:discuss lol. “music is dead” directly translates to “I’m old” or “I’m a hipster and have heard every song that’s ever existed”.

    I’m not going to make this a lengthy rant (even though I could) but I’ll give you these ones Yacko: Where do these fellows fit in your everything is a disembodied copy and can be recreated algorithmically viewpoint?

    Cannibal Ox: Pigeon

    Flying Lotus: Do The Astral Plane

    The Insane Warrior: Then You Hear Footsteps

    Also your reference to “rave music” doesn’t instill confidence in me that you know anything about electronic music. What is “rave music”? Since when is “rave music” an umbrella term under which electronic music gets grouped and how come people can identify different genres consistently if it all sounds the same? Have you ever been to a rave? I sincerely doubt so.

    1. “music is dead” = “I’m a hipster and have heard every song that’s ever existed”

      Spot on.  In the last two years, I’ve discovered tons of great music going back as far as the ’50s that I’ve never heard of before.  This is mostly thanks to Rhapsody and the Amazon used CD market.

      I have no doubt that I’ll continue to find more and more “old” music which I will love.  Music’s not dead to me!!

      1. It’s not about being hip and not about me. I’m telling you music killed itself through the miracle of reproducible recordings and the first nail driven in the coffin started in the days of Edison. Currently the beast is headless yet the body still thrashes around.

        In years to come people will realize the trend. If music is plentiful in quantity, ubiquitous in playback, a low value, ho-hum soundtrack to life, then what is music copyright worth?

    2. I understand. I used it as a catch-all. An easy way to write a couple of sentences without the need to expound a full lecture.

  12. Angry that we can’t be Cory, we must instead troll his comments.  By “we” I mean “you”.

  13. Just a comment (and I double-checked this with the vocalist and voice-science student sitting next to me) about the “biological” aspect to music: hearing something and then singing it is, in fact, a physical, bio-level thing. When you hear someone sing, your larynx (without asking you) begins doing what your ears tell it the other person is doing. That, incidentally, is why someone going flat makes a trained singer physically uncomfortable. Hearing and reproducing music is part of us on a basic level, whatever else may be true.

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