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The past is the future of paid content

With the news that pretty much every newspaper in Canada is going to some sort of pay wall/"metered model," debate is raging once again over whether consumers will ever pay for content. They have and they will. The trick, as someone from the recording business taught me long ago, was to make it seem free, without actually being free. The model is radio. Here's a column I wrote nearly five years ago on the subject. My belief in the soundness of the central argument hasn't changed. 




Mon Feb 25 2008 
Page: 14 
Column: OPINION 


The lengths to which some people will go to avoid picking up the cheque. At the end of January, a 28-year-old Brit named Mark Boyle began what promises to be a 30-month trek from England to India, for which he is bringing some T-shirts, bandages, and an extra pair of sandals. Significantly, he is leaving his wallet behind, hoping to survive entirely off the kindness of strangers.

Mr. Boyle is walking to promote the values of the "freeconomy" movement, a group that claims 3,000 members in 54 countries. Advancing the bold and original thesis that money is the root of all alienation, freeconomicists believe we need to shift from a "money-based, community-less society" to a "community-based, moneyless society." And so Mark Boyle will strike a blow for community by spending the next 2 1/2 years cadging free meals from Bristol to Porbandar.

It comes as no great surprise then that Boyle is a former dot-com businessman. It is cyberculture, and its confluence with hippie values, that is helping drive the copyright wars, one of the most pointless economic conflicts in recent memory. Dedicated to the proposition that "information wants to be free," the Free Culture movement believes content such as news, books, film, games, but above all music, should be free in two senses: free as in speech (there should be no censorship or control over how culture is used); and free as in beer (the culture should be free for the taking).

This movement is opposed by music producers, film studios, and other content producers, who are lobbying for more stringent penalties for illegal downloading and for stricter controls on how content can be used and copied. Here in Canada, the Conservative government is preparing to introduce an updated copyright bill, but it is facing stiff resistance from "copyleft" activists who worry that the new legislation will give in to Big Copyright's most outrageous demands.

And so the two sides are locked in an increasingly polarized dance, with each advocating a perverse and unsustainable business model. It was left to Paul McGuinness, the long-time manager of U2, to try to knock some sense into them. At a conference in France last week, McGuinness gave a speech in which he blamed internet service providers (ISPs), fund managers, and the hippie culture of Silicon Valley for destroying the recording industry, and he went on to propose that a fee for legitimate downloading should be collected by ISPs and paid out to copyright holders.

For his efforts, McGuinness was flogged around the blogosphere, where he was variously accused of being greedy, hypocritical and -- worst -- "corporate." Except that he's right about the influence of hippie values on Internet culture, as well as his suggestion for how to bring the copyright wars to an end.

The profound influence of the counterculture on cyberculture is not remotely controversial. Scratch a file-sharing activist and, more often than not, you'll find someone who deep down just doesn't like the idea of paying for music.

But that is a bit of a cheap shot. After all, nobody likes paying for music, any more than they like paying for food or drink or shelter or anything else. People pay for things when there is stuff they want and shelling out is better than the alternatives of stealing it or going without. All the Internet has done is make theft the most palatable option of the three, while a halfway measure such as 99-cent downloads on iTunes only serves to foreground the main question, namely, why should you pay for something that other people are getting for free?

If you're trying to square the notion of free culture with how the economy works, a handy rule of thumb is this: in the end, the consumer pays for everything. So when it comes to seemingly free media like radio and television, they are funded for the most part by commercial advertising, which is in turn paid for at the cash register by consumers.

The trick to resolving the copyright wars once and for all is to come up with a scheme for making downloading a similar experience to listening to the radio or watching TV: it would seem free, while ensuring that copyright holders actually get paid.

So how can we make file sharing seem free without it actually being free? Canada currently has a levy on blank recording media (such as CDs) that is collected by the Copyright Board and passed on to copyright holders, but a plan to extend the levy to MP3 players was struck down in early January by the Federal Court of Appeal. The most promising idea is a version of McGuinness's tax-and-distribute model, in which the government charges a basic Internet access tax, collected by ISPs, that would give users an unlimited right to download songs, videos, books, games, and so on. The fee would then be paid out in royalties by the Copyright Board in much the same way it is currently done for radio.

Most importantly, it would allow artists to be paid, in a way that doesn't rely on draconian copyright controls on the one hand, or the kindness of strangers on the other. In the end, you get the culture you pay for, which is why the motto that everyone involved should be rallying around is "Free Lunch." As in, there's no such thing as a.