Tuesday, October 23, 2007 

First they came for the torrent websites...

If you want an example of how some of the mainstream media, especially those who have to get the BREAKING STORY out as fast possible rely on press releases, you only have to look at the articles up on the BBC and Sun websites about the closing of the OiNK music torrent community. (Wikipedia entry here.)

The statements from both Cleveland police and the IFPI are available here and here. Compare and contrast as you wish. Thing is, relying on such releases as your primary source means that you're incredibly likely to repeat blatant lies and twisting of the truth from those justifying their actions.

The police claim in their statement that the operating of OiNK was "extremely lucrative" and "members paid donations via debit or credit cards, ensuring their continued access to the site". The former is highly unlikely, while the latter is completely untrue. While I was not a member of OiNK, mainly because I already have more music than I can listen to, I have friends that were, and unlike some other private torrent trackers, where you can donate to bounce your download/upload ratio back up to 1.0, OiNK was well known as being one of the most vigorous pursuers of those who failed to keep their ratio at the required level. As one former user has wrote on a forum:

Donations were completely voluntary. At most you received advanced search features which allowed you to break down your searches by year/artist/album/genre etc. You also gained immunity from the inactivity ban sweeps. They put it this way: "No amount of money you donate will replace the bytes you're not uploading." All that donations did was give you two invites, give you a star, make your irc hostname end in .donor, give you advanced search abilities and access to statistics, no ratio changes, nothing.

Running a site with 180,000 users would incur significant server costs. OiNK, again like other sites do, never begged for donations towards those costs. For the police to claim that this was "extremely lucrative" smells like the proverbial, and for the Scum to suggest the man arrested was making hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, extrapolating from the statement that "this is big business, with hundreds of thousands of pounds being made" is outrageous.

Similarly disingenuous have been the claims, repeated by the BBC and others from the IFPI's statement that OiNK was the "primary source worldwide for illegal pre-release music". The statement itself actually almost tells the true story in this passage:

Closed internet communities known as “ripping groups” often get demos, early mixes of commercial releases and promotional copies of pre-release albums in advance of release with a view to distributing the music as widely and as far ahead of release as possible. Each ripping group gains cachet amongst its peers for being the first to get new music and uses torrent sites to distribute the music as widely as possible.

The first part of the paragraph is true, while the second is the biggest of lies. Ripping groups, those within the "scene", as it's known, do compete with one another to release music first and before each other. However, far from using torrent sites and wanting to distribute the music as far as possible, such groups are actually adamantly opposed to the public spreading of their work and use IRC and private FTPs to distribute their releases within the "scene" itself. Inevitably though their releases are quickly distributed outside it despite their own opposition, and OiNK, being one of the most popular private music sharing sites, was often one of the first places they appeared. Occasionally users on OiNK might have acquired copies of albums before their release date and posted them there, but the vast majority of pre-releases are from the "scene" groups.

Part of the reason why OiNK is being blamed for the above is that the "scene" groups are a problem of the music industry's own making. The vast majority of the members of those groups are those within the record companies themselves, or those once or twice removed from them: those who receive the promotional copies ultra early through their links, whether they're reviewers, family members, workers, DJs or otherwise. The music industry has made attempts to stop such releases occurring, notably only sending out promo copies of recent Foo Fighters and White Stripes' albums on tape or vinyl, putting watermarks on the CD which can lead the ripped copy back to the individual responsible, "promobots", which repeat "this is a promotional copy" or whatever every so often throughout the duration of the CD, etc, but mostly these attempts have failed. They're never going to completely shut down leaks, but it's the height of hypocrisy to blame places like OiNK when the industry itself is chiefly responsible for its own downfall. Also of note is that up until last night the OiNK servers were still operable, far from the statement's claim that they were seized last week, only highlighting the mendacity in their public releases.

The music industry has to realise that while places link OiNK are never going to disappear, their current head in the sand approach to both the quality and digital rights management on most of the music available for "legal download" is only exacerbating the piracy "problem". In effect, they're actually laughing: places like iTunes are hugely popular even though they mostly provide crippled, far from CD quality music. They no longer even have to produce the discs that previously bumped up the cost ever so slightly in such quantites! OiNK was especially noted for its section dedicated to FLAC rips; near lossless quality copies of the CD. No popular legal download site currently provides music either in WAV or FLAC format (juno.co.uk and bleep.com are occasional notable exceptions), and part of the reason why the Russian allofmp3.com was so popular, apart from its low prices, was that it provided the user with choice as to the quality and format of what they paid to download. The industry control freaks are opposed to that exact choice. The only way progress will be made against such piracy will be if they open up, and they have so far showed no signs of being prepared to do so.

Slight update: Torrent Freak, as well as providing excellent coverage, reports that the man arrested has been released on bail. There's also an official "OiNK memorial" blog been set-up.

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Thursday, July 05, 2007 

Cameron in still being an idiot shocker.

Do music lyrics really contribute to a broken society? Actually, scrap that, we know full well what David Cameron really means. Are rap/hip hop lyrics really contributing to a broken society? Are the black kids (because we all know that white kids don't listen to rap/hip hop, and again, they are whom Cameron is more than obviously targeting) that listen to rap/hip hop songs then going out, having listened to the violent, misogynistic, materialistic lyrics, and decide that it's a jolly good idea to form gangs and go out on rape and pillaging sprees?

Dear old David Cameron sincerely thinks so. Not content with making himself look like a complete idiot last year by claiming that Tim Westwood was destroying the moral core of our society by playing other people's records, he yesterday returned to the theme,
this time in a bizarre address to the British Phonographic Industry. He apparently proposed, in return for the industry heads taking into account his belief that music lyrics are helping to create a regressive counter-culture, that the copyright for sound recordings should be extended from 50 to 70 years, something the Gowers report of last year opposed and which the BPI has been lobbying heavily for. I posted on that last year, and Tim similarly lays into Cameron here.

While Cameron claims in his speech that he is most definitely not calling for censorship, legislation or the banning of content, as he is after all a liberal conservative, it's more than apparent that he'd certainly rather that such music didn't exist, which ought to show just how intolerant of artistic freedom, or at least musical artistic freedom he is. He wouldn't call for the "banning" of books or ask the publishing firms to consider their responsibilities when distributing literature which contains explicit violence or horror, and while I wouldn't put it past him to call for similar restraint from the film industry, he doesn't seem likely to do it anytime soon. No, the targeting of the music industry is because it's an easy scapegoat, and due to the fact that most of the music Cameron dislikes comes from the United States, few artists and producers are also going to challenge his hypothesis.

In any case, to suggest that it's just one genre of music that has a problem with troubling lyrics is a nonsense. The various offshoots of metal have more than a reputation for misogyny and violent imagery, although maybe it's because that those within that music sub-culture are almost entirely white that Cameron doesn't have a problem with it. He also hasn't referred to the surge of "emo" bands
which so excised the Daily Mail last year, scaremongering about how angsty middle-class kids were being indoctrinated with self-hatred and arm-slashing, again probably because its adherents tend to be hideously pale.

More than anything, Cameron has picked on song lyrics because it's something he thinks he understands. This is a man who hasn't ever had to spend a day on the streets of inner London or other cities, except for the cameras. His only other idea for dealing with a "broken society" has been to promote the family, which is all well and good except that it similarly ignores the reality on the ground: you have to deal with what is there, not what you wish was. Most of all, it misses the point. He's blaming the lyrics for having an influence on society rather than person that might have been influenced by them. For a man who supposedly wants to promote personal responsibility, blaming the artist rather than the perpetrator only shows up his continuing political bankruptcy.

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Friday, December 08, 2006 

Unmistakable greed.

Yes, this post does provide an excuse to put a photograph of Melua up.

Somewhat buried beneath the less than thrilling contents of the pre-budget report was the release of the
Gowers report into intellectual property copyright. As you might expect, the majority of it (PDF) is so dry that if you put a match to it it'd probably take your face off with it, but in there are a few proposals which should have been implemented years ago, and at least one which has caused the bloated music companies and a few artists to rise up in the biggest fury since Bono had his hat stolen.

The law will be amended so that consumers can legitimately transfer music for their own use, for example from a CD they have bought to an MP3 player. The review also proposes exemptions to allow individuals to sample copyrighted work to create something new and that the law be liberalised and updated to take into account digital archiving and preservation by libraries and academic institutions.

Finally. Ever since the days of the industry claiming that "home-taping was killing music" it's been technically illegal in Britain to make a copy for personal use of a copyrighted product which you've bought, i.e. either a DVD or a CD. As iPods and their cousins have become ubiquitous, this is potentially criminalising around half of the population, as Gowers mentions in the report. Uncontroversial, right? Everyone does it, hardly anyone's rightly ever been prosecuted for doing so, makes sense. Well, to all but to those who claim to represent the artists in question, of course:

AIM, a trade body representing 900 independent labels, said: "We believe Gowers may well be opening the floodgates to uncontrolled and unstoppable private copying and sharing from person to person."

AIM then seems to be suggesting that buying a CD shouldn't give you the right to then copy the data from that CD onto another device for the express purpose of personally listening to it. AIM's solution seems to be that if you want to listen to the music from the CD you've just bought on your iPod or digital music player, you should buy it again from one of the wonderful online vendors of popular music, such as iTunes or Napster, both of which supply that music in horrendous quality, crippled with digital rights management protection, that means you can only play it using their software and hardware, unless you then decide to break another law which means that you can't remove the copy protection from those files whether you want to or not (The UK author of DVD Decrypter, until last year the best available DVD ripping program, was forced to stop updating after being threatened with legal action from Macrovision.). Not only would this double the price of a piece of music, it removes the ability to do what you want with something you have personally purchased, such as create an uncrippled copy at near lossless quality from the original.

There are a few sites which offer music without DRM and at decent quality, such as bleep.com, but they tend to only offer a selection of artists, with nowhere near the choice available on places such as iTunes. Other sites with dubious legality, such as the Russian allofmp3.com, which combines low prices with giving the user the choice of quality and format, are being threatened with lawsuits and closure. AIM's stance is nothing but sheer greed, pure and simple.

The record companies however realise they're fighting a losing battle over personal copying. Better to save their fire for other, slightly more contentious disputes, as we shall come to. Besides, Gowers has lined the report nicely, by giving in to demands for the potential punishment of pirates to be brought into line with the ridiculous American laws, which currently provide for repeat offenders to be imprisoned for up to 10 years and fined up to $1 million. Gowers proposes that 10 years be a possible punishment here too. Everyone agrees that the shady guy on eBay selling second-hand or new DVDs that turn out to be bad copies is a total shit, but a potential 10 year jail sentence for doing so is out of all proportion to the crime. This would affect the people who you know full well are selling copies as well, such as a Chinese guy who goes round all the shops near where I live and announces himself by walking in and saying "DEE VEE DEE?" "DEE VEE DEE?". You know what they sell, he knows what he's selling, and while it may not be a victimless crime, he isn't begging and he isn't robbing you at knife point either. The Gowers report additionally recommends a beefing up of Trading Standards, giving them the power to take the battle to copyright infringers, rather than it having to be reported to them first.

What's really got the industry and some artists riled up is the reports' recommendation that copyright protection should not be extended further than the current 50 years for which it applies. The devil here though is in the detail. 50 years applies to those who make the creative content, i.e. those who play the music. 70 years protection is given to those who actually wrote the song. This is why the music companies themselves are so opposed, as it means their income from the selling/playing of the recording will be taken away, whilst the actual writer will continue to be paid for another 20 years. Additionally, the "less talented" artists, i.e. those who just played while the others wrote, will be stripped of their assets.

It's of little surprise then that artists such as Cliff Richard and Katie Melua have signed an advertisement in the Financial Times opposing Gowers' recommendation. Some of Richard's early material will become public domain within two years, and as he didn't have a role in writing a decent proportion of it, he's going to be shortly out of pocket. As for Melua, it's well known that the vast majority of her insipid material is written by Mike Batt, notorious for getting his start in the music industry by providing the Wombles with their musical accompaniment. The album sleeve from her debut, Call off the Search (I, err, have a copy because of the free bonus DVD, owing to the fact I'm a sad sack of shit and rather fancy her) credits her with writing a whopping two songs on the entire thing, meaning that if things stay as they are by the time she's 72, she'll have lost pretty much all of any money still coming in. Paul McCartney and U2 are also signatories, both of whom despite earning and being worth millions, continue to launch lawsuits against various individuals/companies, in search of recompense for laughable "crimes" or for yet more royalties.

The industry and artists' proposal is that copyright be extended to 95 years. They therefore not only want to still be being paid for what they may have done at the age of 20, which could be no more than pluck a guitar string on a song which unaccountably becomes a huge hit for the length of their lives, they want their offspring to be able to profit from it as well, as the Guardian rightly argues. As a commenter on CiF from Revolver Records makes abundantly clear, this is less to do with any of the debates about what something that makes up a part of our collective culture is worth and for how long it should be worth something, than with competing with the Americans.

As with everything else in America, corporatism looms large. The appropriately nicknamed Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act or, if you prefer, the Mickey Mouse Protection Act from 1998 extended this to a whopping life plus 70 years for the author, and 95 years for everyone else involved. Disney was heavily involved in the lobbying, as you might expect, as was the MPAA and the ever litigious RIAA. Our equivalent of the RIAA, the British Phonographic Industry (not pornographic, note), is demanding that we also adopt 95 years. They recently commissioned a poll by those incorruptible people at YouGov, which amazingly found that 62% supported equal time as the American system gives. The BPI presented this as "British consumers demand fair play on copyright for British musicians".

Or rather, that the European Commission adopts 95 years, as the decision is down to them. Gowers was simply advising the government to support the status quo. In addition to the American argument, the BPI also relies on the dubious fall back that continuing the status quo would "damage the ability of the music industry to invest in new music and promote old recordings", which translated means that they wouldn't be able to continue to profit from getting shit new "bands" to record new versions of old classics, as they weren't involved in the writing of the song, and that they wouldn't be able to keep re-releasing Abba and Queen best of albums until the end of time, as they'd become public domain sooner or later.

In short then, capitalism continues to flourish only when you can rely on the works of others to keep the money pouring in. To hell with collective culture and not exploiting the same old stuff other and other again, money really does make the world go round.

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