Stop playing into their hands

The Copyright Royalty Board (in the US) sets the rates for webcasters playing corporate music in legal regimes that are compatible with US copyright. Webcasting is easy to do, easy enough for an individual with a computer and a modest network connection and many try to do this. But the rates the CRB charges are higher than a hobbyist can afford to pay. What to do? Stop playing into their hands.

Not long ago small webcasters complained about the rates and tried to exert public pressure to lower the rates. Higher rates were proposed and small webcasters complained that they’d have to shut down their webcasts because they couldn’t afford the new higher rates. Now there’s a Constitutional challenge facing the CRB. But there’s a problem with the challenge: even if it succeeds it fails.

TechDirt makes a good point that this challenge is, at best, a distraction over a detail:

At best, the courts will throw out the old rulings, and dismiss the judges… but that almost certainly will lead to the same, or a similar, panel of judges being immediately reappointed under the proper rules. And in the meantime, the more important detailed challenges to the actual webcasting rates or things like the constitutionality of the DMCA get left by the wayside….

But I’d like to take a different tack and consider this issue again from the perspective of why you shouldn’t walk into this problem in the first place.

Ultimately I’m not sympathetic to concerns over CRB prices because the goal is wrongheaded: I don’t value building another corporate music repeater. Collectively we have an opportunity to make sharable works resonate in our memories. But we’ll never get there unless we share those works.

When you choose to webcast major label music, you let the major labels decide your station’s fate. There’s considerable incentive for the labels (or their representative organizations) to control the competition. They don’t need you to publicize their work. Those tracks are heard every day by millions regardless of what you do. You won’t set yourself apart by repeating what is readily available from the major labels.

You could set your webcasting apart by working with the lesser-known artists who license their work to share. licenses all their work on terms that don’t require any payment. There is lots of music distributed on comparable terms.

I understand that artistic works aren’t like functional works—one can substitute a free software office suite for a proprietary alternative, but one can’t exchange artistic works in the same way. I’ve heard that objection before but I think it’s a red herring because there is a more important principle at stake—what culture do you want: one where the terms of participation are set to keep you at bay, or one where you can share and build as a colleague? At some point you have to come to more practical thinking that gets to the heart of what you can afford to do and what you ought to be doing anyhow: building a culture in which we can all work and play. You can’t afford to do what the major labels do, besides. You should think about building a commons and teaching others to support a commons: work with those who work with you and support a culture built from works that let us treat each other on mutually amenable terms.

Major labels leverage copyright power to restrict their competition. Don’t play into their hands thinking you’ll build the next corporate megastation. You won’t, you’ll just be a corporate repeater until they shut you down for failing to pay their price.