Last week at SXSW, music industry veteran Jim Griffin broached the idea that file sharers pay a small fee through their ISPs in exchange for unlimited file sharing. There is a great deal to recommend an idea like this (as we've been saying since 2004), but there's a right way and a wrong way to go about it.
We are big fans of a collective licensing solution for the music file-sharing dilemma: music fans pay a few dollars each month in exchange for a blanket license to share and download whatever they like; collecting societies collect the money and divvy it up between their member artists and rightsholders. It's not a radical idea -- that's roughly how we pay songwriters for radio play, concert hall performances, and the music playing in your favorite restaurant.
But this should not turn into, as some have called it, an "ISP tax." Any collective licensing solution should be voluntary for fans, artists, and ISPs alike. We don't have a compulsory "restaurant tax" for songwriters -- there's no reason to have a compulsory "Internet tax" for file sharing. It should give fans what they want, rather than trying to withhold things from them -- after all, artificial scarcity is what got us into this mess. And it must give artists the freedom to choose among competing collecting societies, which is the only mechanism that will guarantee the kind of transparency and efficiency that much of the current music industry lacks.
Read on for a quick reference guide to help distinguish a good collective licensing plan from a bad "ISP tax."
Voluntary for Music Fans. People who do not share music shouldn't have to pay for a license they don't need. After all, we don't have a "music tax on restaurants." Restaurants are free to experiment with no music, public domain music, or CC music, as they see fit. Internet users should have the same freedom. But this means that there will still be some enforcement against those who don't pay but keep downloading. That seems fair, and enforcement to get people to become paying subscribers will look very different from today's "mount a few heads on spikes to scare the rest" approach being used by the RIAA and MPAA.
Voluntary for Artists. Artists shouldn't be forced to participate if they don't want to. That said, the vast majority of creators and rightsholders will likely opt in, rather than opt to sue individual Internet users. After all, 99% of all songwriters are members of one of the three performing rights organizations (PROs) we have today. It sure beats having to find and sue every radio station every time it plays your song.
Not a Collecting Society, but Collecting Societies. Freedom of choice for artists only means something if they have options to choose among. Competition is critical to keeping collecting societies honest and transparent. If you compare the three PROs that service songwriters in the US to the unitary, government-backed collecting societies in the rest of the world, our system wins hands down on these fronts.
Voluntary for ISPs. There is no need to force ISPs to offer blanket sharing licenses to music fans. Some ISPs will voluntarily bundle the license with their offerings ("buy the all-you-can-eat music package for $5 more"), some ISPs may choose not to. Universities might choose to buy campus-wide licenses in bulk in order to stop the RIAA's college litigation campaign. Software companies like LimeWire might choose to bundle the license fee into their software, paid either by subscription fees or advertising. At the end of the day, it's the individual fan who needs the license, and she should have lots of ways to buy it.
All the Music, From Anywhere. Music fans have made it clear that they are going to use whatever software they like, to download anything that can be found in any "Shared" folder on the planet, including the unauthorized concert recordings, the rarities, the old b-sides, and the alternate takes. It's time to figure out who should be paid for them, rather than wishing for a world where you can somehow make them disappear.
Technology Agnostic. Linux, Mac, Windows, iPod, cell phone. Downloads, streaming, buffered streams. Music fans want their music in whichever format, on whichever device, works best for them. Once you've paid, it's nobody's business where your music comes from or where it ends up. It should go without saying that DRM is has no place in this future.
Protects Privacy. Paying for music sharing shouldn't entail giving up your privacy. While the collecting societies will need to have some metrics of popularity in order to divide up the revenue pie, we should take our cue from television, where we divide up huge advertising revenues by relying on sophisticated sampling systems like Nielsen's. Sampling and surveys are good -- a perfect census of what every person listens to is not.