Friday, July 22, 2005

Download doomsayer

Now I appear to be the only person on the planet who doesn't consider the Beethoven MP3 project to have been a success. And here are my reasons. Just open this link, or this link for file sharing sites that are offering the Beethoven recordings. And if they have been taken down there are many, many other servers with these files which can be found in just a few minutes searching.

It is almost impossible to open a newspaper or turn on the radio in the UK without coming across another self-congratulatory story about the success of the BBC Beethoven Symphony downloads. But I beg to differ about the success of this project.

Creative artists, and that includes composers, musicians, producers, editors and arrangers as well as authors and artists, have only one currency - intellectual property. Beethoven's 9th Symphony is not a paper score, a plastic CD, or the bits and bytes of an MP3 file. It is the unique, original, and priceless, expression of a creative idea. Similarly Vassily Sinaisky's interpretation, and the BBC Philharmonic's playing of the symphony is another unique, and original, expression of an interpretative idea.

Copyright protects those unique and original ideas. This protection safeguards the interests of the creator, and allows, where appropriate, the creator to be rewarded for his work. Copyright laws originated in the 18th century to protect the interests of authors as printing became established as a fast, and cheap, method of producing multiple copies of books. If copyright laws did not exist there would be no incentive for creative artists to produce their masterpieces as financial reward would not be possible. It is no coincidence that creativity in western civilsation flourished after copyright laws were established.

Any new music (or book) distribution model must have embedded in it the ability to protect the intellectual property that is being distributed. This applies even if there is no charge for the distribution, as is the case in the BBC downloads. I posted a few weeks back about Naxos' music downloads from library web sites. There is no charge for these, but they are protected from onward copying by sophisticated (and expensive) digital rights management (DRM) software from OverDrive Inc which was available to the BBC.

The BBC let the Beethoven MP3 downloads into the market without any attempt at controlling their intellectual property rights other than some ineffective small print on the download page. The BBC didn't lose control of the copyright of these performances, they simply surrendered it. The evidence is out there on the internet, just open this link, or this link for file sharing sites that are offering the Beethoven recordings, and there are many, many other file servers which can be found in just a few minutes searching. Copy protection was both essential, and deliverable - see this link for discussion of how it could have been achieved.

I could understand all the baloney from the BBC if they had pioneered a new distribution model for recorded classical music. But they haven't. They've simply driven a coach and horses through an existing model. (New alternatives to copyright do exist, such as copyleft and similar admirable initiatives). Two truisms about new web business models come to mind. The first is that if something becomes technically possible, it doesn't automatically follow that it also becomes commercially viable. The second is that the internet is the world's most effective photocopier. I am not slamming the BBC for offering free classical music downloads, and I am delighted by any scheme that widens the appeal of serious music. But I am heavily criticising the BBC for not being professional, and ensuring that a copyright protection solution, from those readily available, was in place on these files before they were unleashed onto the internet. By their actions they have put the future livelihood of musicians and others at risk. And that is why I do not consider this exercise to have been a success.

The UK Government's controversial Hutton Inquiry castigated the BBC for acting first, and thinking second when reporting on the death of Government WMD scientist Dr David Kelly (see photo to right). The BBC have followed exactly the same sequence of acting first and thinking second with the Beethoven downloads. The Hutton Inquiry resulted in the resignation of the BBC's Director General Greg Dyke, and an apology from the BBC. It is particularly ironic that Dyke's replacement Mark Thompson is now maximising the positive spin from yet another action that was launched without being properly thought through. The horse has well and truly bolted on the Beethoven files and is galloping around the internet, so there is no chance of putting a lock on the stable door.

Never underestimate the power of the BBC. They have an assured income from a non-negotiable poll tax known as the license fee of nearly £3 billion ($5.5 billion) a year, and have one of the three most recognisable brands in the world. And they can afford to get it badly wrong. Official figures show that the BBC rolling news channel News 24, which has a budget of more than £50 million ($90 million), broadcast 472 hours in 2003 when nobody was watching at all; and the average spot audience was around 37,000 50,000 viewers (source The Road Taken, a book by BBC journalist and newscaster Michael Buerk, page 418). Let's hope they use their massive technology resources a little more responsibly when they start their 'Bach around the clock' marathon in the week before Christmas.

Regular readers who are fearing that on an overgrown path is morphing into another slash.org need not fear. My next two posts will be solely about the joys of live music making. But I just hope that the performers involved, the Serlo Consort and L'Orchestre Lyrique de Region Avignon-Provence and L'Ensemble Vocal D'Avignon still have the funding in future years to make live music. Or will the audiences simply be sitting at home listening to free BBC downloads of the works involved, the two Schumann Requiems, and Christopher Tye's Missa Euge Bone?

If you liked this post take an overgrown path to Wiki brings collabarative music full circle
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8 comments:

Berend de Boer said...

As a software engineer I can assure you that you cannot protect downloadable intellectual property. All claims to the contrary are marketing noise.

As soon as the sound is being played through your soundcard, you can record it for example. Instead of sending the sound to your speakers, you send it to your recorder.

The BBC didn't protect their property, because they couldn't.

Pliable said...

Berend, thanks for adding to the discussion. But I am not sure I would agree with your conclusion that online content cannot be protected, see www.overdrive.com and others who have robust DRM solutions that are adopted by major partners.

But even if you are correct and the content couldn't be protected, that still doesn't justify the BBC's actions. If you can't lock your car it is a bit silly leaving it parked overnight in a high crime area - unless you genuinely don't want to get any value from it again.

Berend de Boer said...

pliable, I'm correct :-)

At some point, the sound must be played right? So it has to leave all that 'digitially protected' stuff, and go over the wire to your soundspeakers. You can pick it up right there for example. And I can assure you, you can pick it up much easier and earlier.

There are no robust DRM solutions.

And with your analogy: how much were these Beethoven recordings worth? Could they turn them into a CD? Sell them? IMO they were virtually worthless after having been played.

You can play them over the radio and sell them to partners for playing. That value is still there. But that's all you can do.

And I'm not convinced that a 128kbps Beethoven MP3 stream is any threat to Beethoven CD sales. It must sound horrible through good speakers.

Pliable said...

Unsurprisingly the first link on my post to a file server offering the Beethoven MP3 files no longer offers them.

But my comments still remain valid. It takes a few minutes searching to find other sources of these files. But as my argument is with the BBC rather than the file sharers who exploit their lack of professionalism I am not getting involved in whistle-blowing on other file servers.

Pliable said...

Berend, you are quite correct. Any music content can be recorded in the analogue domain. Either via the audio output, or using a microphone in tne concert hall - which is how bootlegs are made.

But converting from digital to analogue, copying, and reconverting is a clumsy process, and very unattractive to file sharers. What the file sharers want is instantaneous, no hassle, cloning of digital audio files. And that is what the DRM solutions are built to prevent.

I am sure any form of encyption can be cracked given a lot of work and time, just as the Kryptonite lock on my nice mountain bike can be smashed by an industrial strength jack. But it does deter the majority of casual thieves, and that is protection worth having. The digital equivalent of Kryptonites were available to the BBC, and I still think they should have used them.

Anonymous said...

DRM doesn't work like a bike lock. If someone wants to steal your locked bike, he needs to personally crack open your tough Kryptonite lock. Not so with a DRM protected download. It only takes one hacker to remove the lock, and then you have a clean mp3 copy that can be distributed on filesharing services exactly as easily as the mp3's from BBC.

DRM might have an effect against someone who simply wants to share his download with some close friends, but it gives zero protection against the large scale filesharing that might actually be problematic. Most computer game comes with sophisticated protections against piracy, that are far more advanced than DRM on music, but yet they are generally available for download on filesharing services shortly after - and often even before - they are published. In the end the only ones who suffer from the protection against piracy are those who actually buys the product. They get a product that cannot easily be backed up and that they cannot share with friends and family, while those who downloads an illegal file gets a product that can be backed up and copied as they see fit.

Apart from that I see it as an obvious success for the BBC that so many downloaded the symphonies. Just as it would be a great success if their radio transmissions of the concert reached a large audience.

asdfgh999 said...

I think this was an excellent initative from the BBC. This is classical music and as such should be made available for education purposes if nothing else. The majority of people in this world have no appreciation of classical music and the internet is an excellent medium for sharing such art. When the record companies try to crush such initatives it is they that are killing music.

In any case I think it's more likely that people will go on to spend money on classical music in the future after enjoying this 'free' introduction.

As for obtaining the materias freely. The BBC is funded my the money I pay in tax and tv licences (here in the UK). So it is actually me that payed the orchestra. And I really don't think they can be all that short of cash as their solo violinist has played a Stradavarius.

For the record, Berend de Boer knows what he is talking about. The first rule of piracy; if you can see it/watch it/hear it then you can copy it. Copy protection is just ignorance, at some point this encryption has to be dropped for us to view the media.

J. said...

Hi Pliable, grand article. I was wondering if i could use that picture of Kelly for the Wikipedia article on him, it currently doesnt have one. Im one of those people who have too much time on their hands, who occupy themselves by mucking around on wikipedia. If you found the picture somewhere else, could you direct me thereto? Its just that I have to tip toe around media licensing.

Cheers