The music and film industries have control issues. For decades, they have been the ones in control. They have told us — the listeners and viewers — when and where we can consume their products. They have dictated the terms.
Then along came digital technology, and those businesses lost control to technology companies and the people who could now watch what they want and listen to what they want whenever they want. Rather than try to innovate, the music industry and Hollywood have tried to stuff the digital genie back into the bottle.
They’ve tried laws, they’ve tried lawsuits, they’ve tried threats. But at each turn, people rejected them for the technology they craved to control media on their own terms. And there’s been a long list of popular technological solutions, from the VCR to the DVR to the MP3 player to satellite radio.
But with each of these solutions, the studios and record companies have fought tooth and nail to stop them. And it’s no surprise that the latest shot fired by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) was to sue XM Radio for its new portable satellite radio player, the Pioneer inno (pictured above). The inno lets people record and store up to 50 hours of satellite radio programming, but does not let them transfer the recordings to other devices.
The RIAA and the various big record labels it represents say the inno is breaking copyright laws, and that XM should be paying a separate licensing fee for this record-and-playback function. XM fires back that the labels are using the litigation to force XM to pay more licensing money, as XM has already paid a fee to broadcast the music in the first place.
Whatever the details in this particular case, it’s just one in a long line of lawsuits and battles the music industry has waged in fighting against new technology — a fight it can’t possibly win. With each technology it “conquers” — like the Napster file-trading service — a hundred more spring up like whack-a-moles that can’t all be whacked.
JD Lasica detailed many of these battles in his fascinating book, Darknet: Hollywood’s War Against the Digital Generation. Lasica details just how much control the record companies have lost, and how hard they’ve fought to regain it. Here’s one particularly telling passage (keep in mind, the book was published about a year ago):
To date, the record companies have shown a mistrust of the technologies that will either sustain them or undercut their reason for existing. The record labels need to realize that their salvation lies not in devising a fool-proof copy protection scheme or legislating file-sharing networks out of existence. Their future lies in winning the hearts, minds, and wallets of thirteen- to twenty-five-year-old music fans who are immersed in digital culture — who spend their days swapping instant messages, chatting, sending emails, and mixing, burning, mashing, and manipulating personal media. Sometimes copyrighted media…
What will the future of music look like? We’ll likely see a new middle class of musicians emerge, subverting the mass music hit engine and changing the dynamics of the music business. Any new business model must assure that musicians and creative artists are compensated fairly for their work — a task the labels have generally failed at. One casualty of a reinvented music industry may be the collapse of the superstar system. The increasing number of fans with diverse, eclectic tastes suggests that record companies need to jettison their lowest-common-denominator approach to popular music.
But not every label is putting its head in the sand with new technology. One good sign was that Warner Bros. recently announced it would distribute movies and TV shows via the BitTorrent file-sharing service — though they will be copy-protected files that Warner will rent or sell. Still, it’s a focus on collaborating with a pioneering technology company, rather than trying to win the digital media war with litigation only.
What do you think? Should the RIAA be suing XM over the inno device, or trying to work together with satellite radio over the inevitable record-and-playback features? How do music companies and Hollywood strike a balance between digital rights management and letting people share their personal copies of media? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.