Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Killer app

Anyone who pays for recorded music is a sucker.

But what about the artists? No one will make music if they don't get paid!

Possibly, this is not the case. But it is a problem that musicians get no money from downloads, perhaps not only because of the moral claims it gives to the parasites in the record industry. Here's the solution I'd like to see:

There should be a system allowing you to make a voluntary payment to the musician whenever you download a piece of music. Set the standard rate at, say, double the royalty the artist gets typically, and I'm sure the payment would still be much lower than what's charged for downloads now. What's stopping you from doing this yourself, you ask. The transaction costs are prohibitively high. You need to identify the musician's paypal account or whatever, decide the right amount (little decisions are very cognitively costly for some of us), and make an affirmative effort to make the payment. And of course, you need to have the idea of paying the musician in the first place – conventions do a lot of work, and there isn't one for this.

But imagine if there were some program that worked with iTunes, Rhapsody, etc. that whenever you added a track to your library, asked you, “Send a standard donation to the artist?” You could even set it to Yes by default. There'd also have to be a service musicians registered with, of course; I don't think that would be the hard part. And of course in our current IP dystopia you'd have to maintain the fiction that the donation was on top of what you'd already paid to buy the track “legally”. The payment would be voluntary, so you could pick the amount, but as the whole point here is to make the system as seamless as possible defaults would play a big role; personally I like the idea of a standard rate fixed in proportion to the median income of the downloader's country or region, but that's not important. The important point is that when you disintermediate the record companies, there is a very large space left where fees are much lower than current costs – low enough that many people would pay them – but high enough to provide a decent income to artists, even taking into account the inevitable freeloaders. And as for freeloaders, don't underrate the power of norms: People, after all, like the musicians they like, and it's easy to imagine donations under this system being quickly established as something you just do.

Of course, the donation only has a moral force that current payments don't because the money is going to the artist. If musicians find themselves signing contracts that pledge any donation income to their label, then we're right back where we started. Which brings me to a larger point.

Over at Crooked Timber, they're discussing the concept of “self-ownership”. Logically enough, they conclude that your personal autonomy can't be reduced to ownership, since you can't sell yourself. What they don't do is generalize this to a broader category of claims – let's call them moral rights – that can't be sold or otherwise transferred to someone else. There are obviously a lot of valuable but inalienable claims that fall into this category: degrees and other credentials, membership in a family, citizenship. And most importantly in this context, what the copyright pages of European books call the author's “moral rights” as creator of an original work.

This right is well established in academia: priority in publishing is felt very strongly – it is in some sense the currency of scholarship – and, more important, enforced with strong social sanctions. What's funny is it has no legal status. More broadly these kinds of rights clearly are legally recognized. For instance, it would be interesting to know what the case law is – there must be some – on the hypothecating of Social Security benefits. Clearly it is not the case that you can sell your future Social Security for a lump sump payment n the present, or there would be various well-established sleazy outfits doing that; but I'd very much like to know the arguments the courts accepted why not.

Point is, there clearly is a category of rights that cannot be alienated, and it's a category that could be usefully broadened, here in the Age of Information.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Sign of the times

Interesting milestone in 2008, according to the BEA. For the first time ever (well, at least since 1947) manufacturing was no longer the largest recipient of US nonresidential investment. The new champ? Mining. $216 billion in new fixed assets in mining (mostly in oil and gas extraction), and only $208 billion in manufacturing.

I don't remember seeing this written about anywhere, but it seems like it should mean something.