Scouting the Copyright Issues

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.


Last week, the Los Angeles Boy Scouts announced the unveiling of their latest merit badge. The merit badge program is one of the scouts' most beloved character building tools. A badge is earned in a particular field when the Boy Scout develops appropriate self confidence having overcome specific obstacles in that field. The latest Boy Scout merit badge is not a badge for Astronomy, Woodworking or Indian Lore. Rather, it's a badge for respecting copyrights.

Created in conjunction with the film studios in Hollywood, the Respecting Copyright Merit Badge requires intensive instruction on recognizing different types of copyrighted works and ways the work might be stolen. The program is being introduced to the 52,000 Boy Scouts in the LA area this year.

While I support the idea of our youth being made conscious about the importance of protecting creative works, I'm not convinced illegal downloading occurs through ignorance as much as it serves a need of convenience. A more productive exploration might be one in which we concern ourselves with why so many people chose to download illegally.

At the crux of the issue lies the fact that dozens of companies are forcing consumers to adapt to their own infastructure to get legal files. Each company that offers a downloading service has its own rules about where you can download and when, how much it will cost, and whether you can keep the files if you leave their service.

The reality is, illegal downloading is free and open. And though I do not in any way advocate downloading files this way, it remains a fact that if you do, you're avoiding the online bureaucracy associated with the pay sites. Let us never forget the new millennium axiom. Convenience is a major factor in purchases.

In the music world, the problem is compounded by a series of events that created the perfect storm for illegal downloading. The record industry's infastructure was built in a different era and the flexibility to adapt has been slow. Label heads have not been visionary about these changing times. Keeping the old system to keep the profit margins from declining has been their primary motivation. But consumers could not care less. They want to hear quality music, at a reasonable price, on a simple to use system, period. Of all the sites, emusic has come closest to meeting those goals, but the major record labels have been reticent to give them their music files.

The record industry will stop illegal downloading when they address the issues of convenience and cost. It's that simple. If the record business doesn't change systems to meet technology in a way that favors the needs of fans, we don't really deserve to be its ambassadors.

The only reasonable solution is one that creates a uniform vehicle for all consumers to buy music on a universal system, priced reasonably and conveniently transferable. After all, the record business should be about music, not about distribution. How did we get so out of tune?

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.