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George Orwell wrote about Salvador Dali:
“One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other. The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’ Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being.”
In recent weeks, I have been struck by an analogy. Professional musicians are turning into new miners. I do not mean that they squeeze into dark holes and come out all sweaty and dirty, though I am sure plenty of them do. I mean that they are embarking on a great struggle, but one I think they have no hope of winning.
Twenty-five years ago, the coalminers of Britain’s National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) went on strike. They fought bitterly and they were desperate, but ultimately the strike ended in shattering defeat. They were not without popular support. Pictures of Police brutally clashing with pickets gained them favour, though this was balanced by stories of the harassment meted out to the strikebreakers who went back to work. In the public consciousness, the miners were defeated by an implacable opponent: Prime minister Margaret Thatcher. In the Ridley Plan, her colleagues had already outlined some of the essential steps to be successful when faced by a national strike by the coalminers. These included building up stocks of coal in advance and contingency planning for the import of coal at short notice. There was no doubt that the easiest way to envision the strike was as a battle of wills between Thatcher and the NUM’s leader, Arthur Scargill. The reality, though, is a little subtler.
Thatcher made vital decisions that allowed her to successfully confront the miners, instead of caving in to their demands for fear of power cuts, but she also had more powerful forces on her side: the tide of economic necessity. Put simply, British coal was more expensive than other fuels available for power generation. Cutting the cost of national subsidies would make it easier for Thatcher to cut taxes. Cutting the cost of electricity bills would reduce the cost of living and hence also buy her support. In a democracy, a major national strike needs to be seen in terms of overall imperatives. A politician that delivers power cuts is unlikely to maintain popular support, but a politician that delivers reduced taxes and reduced household bills is likely to gain support. It is a simple equation, but no less valid for its simplicity. Thatcher made a political calculation, and it paid off for her. In contrast, Scargill made the wrong calculation, and the cost of that error was the subsequently more vicious dismemberment of the British coal industry.
Recording artists are embarking on a similar crusade to that of the miners. Like miners, they have long depended on the state’s institutions. They do not work for a nationalized industry like the coalminers did, but they do rely upon an economic model that needs to be upheld by laws that are especially favourable to them. For most of the population, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but that flattery is the only recompense available when the product of your mind is copied by someone else. Most ideas cannot be patented, or copyrighted, or trademarked, or protected in any other way. Though it is called intellectual property, the ‘intellectual’ element of such property is very narrowly defined, so that there can be a useful test and way to enforce laws that control who can exploit it for economic gain. If I copy an exact string of words I infringe copyright, but not if I relay the gist of a story. I break the law if I repeat a song note for note without giving the compensation due to the rights owner, but I do not break the law if I am inspired to write a similar song. This imbalance between the laws that govern exact copies and the absence of laws to govern similarity tends to favour people who already have wealth and power and can therefore have privileged access to distribution networks. The wealth and power of successful recording artists depends on a pillar maintained by the state, the institutions of law and order that govern what we may or may not do. Without copyright law, and the levers of the state necessary to enforce it, there would be no copyright infringement and no way to make money from owning copyright. But like the coalminers, there is an economic threat that musicians now face, and just like the miners, they are unwilling to do so. They have also slipped into the same trap as the miners, insisting that their fight is a moral one, when the truth is that the battleground is the economy.
The law only works if the great majority of people are willing to abide by it. The wonder of democracy is that we can replace governments without bloodletting, but even the worst tyrant can be overthrown. Authority for every law, every institution of the state, depends on the acceptance of the people. The horror of Orwell’s 1984 is that the state might penetrate not just into your home, but into your mind, in order to control you. We expect some things to be inviolable, including our own minds. That there are limits to law is a maxim. Where to draw those limits is a question of practicality as well as morality and economics. Like any other practicality, the answer to the question can change because of new circumstances. We find that through history, it is often morality that changes to suit practicality, and not the other way around. Nuclear stockpiles to kill every human are morally repugnant, but we can expect more and more nations to join the nuclear club for purely practical reasons, and the moral justification is always the same: “if them, why not us?” Cloning, slavery, education and child labour, pensions and the treatment of the elderly, democracy, feudalism, the role of women in the workplace – all have been the subject of moral debates and all of those debates are seen through the prism of what is practical at any given point in time. As practicalities change, so morality changes with it. Slavery for farming would be repugnant now, but is not so obviously repugnant in a time where there are no machines to bear the brunt of farming work. Expecting genteel ladies to work was also repugnant at one time, until the First World War made it essential to utilize every human resource at the nation’s disposal. The same is true of copyright, yet like the coalminers, the musicians are living in denial about the consequences for the economic model that rewards them for their work.
Just like nuclear proliferation, which we can abhor and try to delay but recognize as inevitable just because of the spread of technology, copyright abuse will inevitably increase. When copying involved taking a book and writing it out again in longhand, then there was no need for copyright law. Now that copying has been completely divorced from physicality, and that we live in a world with a globally connected network to share digital content, and there are people in the world with the nous to write software and implement solutions to solve problems they want to solve, copyright abuse is inevitable. Its abuse is inevitable thanks to the glorious hypocrisy in the heart of every human being: the belief that laws are there to protect them from other people, not there to stop them doing things they want to do. Everybody thinks like that, and no end of ‘education’ will stop people ‘stealing’ music so long as they feel the cost of music on the free market is too high, and the damage done to the creative artist is little or none. Any very many people do feel like that. So whilst the economic imperatives are different to those that savaged the British coal industry – we are talking about ease of access for a limitless and free ‘black market’ in music, not the relative cost of extraction and the kilojoule content of coal versus gas – the economic imperatives exist and cannot be ignored.
The musicians, like the miners before them, are living in denial about economic change. One can sympathize. Nobody wants to believe that their chosen path has been invalidated by forces outside of their control. If you make a career decision in your teens, it will be painful to recognize that it was based on outdated economic assumptions by the time you reach your late twenties. A retreat to an argument for morality is as misguided as the miners believing they could successfully demand subsidies from the rest of society. In a way, they can, because they can try to make it so difficult to change that people put up with long-run inequity rather than a shorter period of more severe turbulence and trouble. The price of doing so is inequity; musicians are demanding to be raised up and protected by society that does not offer similar protections to everyone else. Plenty of ideas receive no legal protection. Copyright does. This inequity most of us would agree is tolerable. But that this inequity needs to be backed by surveillance is a demand too far. A law that cannot be enforced without spying on people in their homes is a law that belongs in Orwell’s Airstrip One, not a law that belongs in our Britain. And we know that copyright can no longer be effectively enforced without surveillance. That makes it a law that should not be enforced, because the morality of protecting the right of musicians to enjoy the economic benefits of their labour is outweighed by the morality of protecting all citizens from surveillance by authoritarian forces. If anything, the musician has become far more morally reprehensible than the miner ever was. The miner just expected to get paid more than the true value of the coal they produced, and if they do not get it, they would cut everybody’s electricity until the government backed down. Unfortunately for the miner, there were no power cuts and the strike went on far longer than the average miner could afford to live without pay. In contrast the musician expects not just the state, but unrelated businesses to pay the price for the surveillance they demand. And they do expect surveillance of everybody in the UK. Electronically monitoring who does what on a network is surveillance of everyone who uses it, no matter how much ignorance and subterfuge is offered by musicians in order to make it sound more reasonable.
One of the reasons to dislike Arthur Scargill, the leader of the NUM who lead their ill-fated strike, was his authoritarian tendencies. There is little doubt he was loved by many of his union’s members. He was seen as a man who worked hard for the cause of miners, was honest and faithful. But when he called for a national strike by coalminers, the NUM lacked the facility, or interest, to ballot its own members on whether they wanted to strike. Now I see Lily Allen in much the same light as Scargill. She has the same ability to inspire love and devotion in some, but suffers the same deficits when it comes to an excess of pride and a lack of humility. Allen is a would-be leader for the musicians, and for much of the rest of us. In recent weeks, she has been the most outspoken of the increasingly politicized fight to protect the economic interests of recording artists. What Allen lacks is an interest in listening to points of view that are different to her own. I have never met the woman, but I draw inferences from her behaviour. She started a blog to persuade people to her point of view, but tore it down after she received ‘abuse’, by which she means she did not like being pointed out as a hypocrite. Allen then went on a media rampage, threatening to quit music and appearing in The Sun to immodestly explain how she ‘understands the internet’, with the implication presumably being that anyone who disagrees with her must not really understand the internet, although there are many learned individuals from all walks – lawyers, academics and even musicians – who sincerely believe copyright is in desperate need of reform. This media blitz was cleverly and pointedly designed to distract attention from the revelation, made prominent on Michael Masnick’s Techdirt blog only hours earlier, that Allen had infringed the copyright of other musicians herself. When she was unknown and trying to get attention, she made ‘mixtapes’, digital music files that spliced her music with that of other artists, in the hope that they would be downloaded and help her to gain popularity. Embarrassingly for Allen, the mixtapes were still available for download on LilyAllenMusic.com, even whilst Ms. Allen was denouncing the evil of ‘stealing’ from recording artists by abusing their copyright. When the hypocrisy was about to get mainstream press attention, the mixtapes were finally pulled from her website and she went into overdrive – talking about anything and everything except her own infringement of copyright laws that she now rather pompously considers to be sacrosanct.
If you want the proof of Lily Allen’s copyright infringement, I downloaded the files from LilyAllenMusic.com to ensure the evidence was never lost to the public domain. If you want, you can listen to Lily Allen’s mixtape1 and mixtape2. I know that by offering these files I am guilty of copyright infringement myself. The funny thing about morality is that sometimes the morally right thing is to break a law in order to highlight a greater moral wrong. I am not deaf to the pleas from celebrities to protect the interests of hard-up old session musicians, but I am cynical about them. And I am not persuaded that heralding an era of unprecedented spying on the private individual is a price worth paying to ensure the poorest musicians earn a little more money. A better solution to the poverty of some who work in the music industry would involve the richest musicians earning a whole lot less, but the music industry has been incapable of finding solutions like that. That makes them as selfish as much of the rest of humanity, including the people who want to download music for free.
To borrow from Orwell, one ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Lily Allen is an attractive artist with a talent for catchy songs, and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other. The first thing that we demand of a musician is that he or she makes music. If it makes us want to whistle or dance, it is good music, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. Yet even the best celebrity in the world deserves to be pulled down if they use their celebrity to turn the internet into a prison camp. Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being.
And Lily Allen is wrong about music dying. Music lived before copyright. It will live after copyright. People make music with no profit motive, even in these crazy materialistic times. Take a listen to this sensational song by Dan Bull, which rather amusingly analyses Lily Allen and her arguments…