The copyright industry is under the belief that “streaming” will solve all of their problems with “downloading”. Rather, I predict that it will be the copyright industry’s undoing, for three distinct reasons. Streaming is more a legal concept than a technical one, it changes who the culture gatekeepers are, and it changes what people see themselves paying for.
We know that people will always copy, as people always have copied. Culture, knowledge, experience, skills, and behavior. It’s part of what makes us human and allows us to build a civilization. For the same reasons, file sharing — of whatever form — will never stop. It might transmute to stream sharing, or whatever’s-next sharing, but it will still be about the sharing of culture and knowledge with fellow human beings, just like it always has.
But I predict that the copyright industry’s belief in streaming will undo them, for these three reasons.
1. Streaming is a purely legal concept
First, the distinction between streaming and downloading doesn’t exist on a technical level, as in “in reality”. It is a fabricated difference by lawyers to force rule-changing technology into old malfitting shoes. The legal difference between streaming and downloading is built on the idea that you can control the behavior at the recipient when transmitting bits over the internet. But the receiving machine is always the only type of machine that the copyright industry could never control in the slightest: it is a fully programmable general-purpose computer. What it does with the bits it is receiving is entirely up to its owner and operator, and never up to the transmitter.
Anything that can be received as a stream can also be saved for later. Without exception.
Besides, the difference between streaming and downloading is blurred even from a user standpoint. YouTube is typically given as an example of a streaming site. When I go to YouTube to watch a video clip, YouTube starts sending bits to my computer immediately, in anticipation that I will click the Play button within a few seconds. But maybe I don’t. Maybe I’ll let the whole clip arrive at my computer without pressing Play. Maybe I’ll keep the web page open for a whole week without pressing Play. All the time, I can copy the downloaded bits to other people, still without pressing Play.
At what point does YouTube’s streaming turn into illegal downloading? What is the legal limit on how long I am allowed to not press Play, before YouTube becomes liable for copyright infringement through copying rather than broadcast? Five seconds? An hour? A week? Can I legally go to the bathroom?
You see my point — it quickly turns ridiculous when lawyers insist on shoehorning new technology into old rules.
2. Streaming changes the gatekeepers
Today, the record labels are ecstactic that Spotify and similar services are gaining mainstream acceptance, as it means that a portion of people will prefer controlled centralized services rather than uncontrolled decentralized file sharing. But in doing this, they are also ensuring their own fadeaway.
It used to be that any musician needed a record label to reach the masses at all. The copyright industry was so successful in its indoctrination, that aspiring musicians were dreaming of getting published. This is still true to a large extent. As if, in this day and age, they needed somebody else’s blessing to reach an audience!
While Spotify has succeeded in reaching a large audience, it is not interesting for artists who have business ambitions. They will turn elsewhere. And here’s what we see happening: it used to be that people were buying music from the record labels and books from book publishers, through stores and channels. Today, a few superaggregators are larger than the copyright industry’s actors: you can get any music from Pandora, Spotify or iTunes, and you can get any book from, say, Kindle Store.
The interesting phenomenon is that creators are starting to go directly to these new gatekeepers — and they encourage that. Out of the 25 best-selling authors on Kindle Store, 19 have not gone through the copyright industry to get there. As thanks for that, they get to keep 70% of the revenue instead of 5-15%.
So artists are starting to just skip the unnecessary middleman step altogether — and are heavily rewarded for it, financially. As more creators discover that, the process is likely to accelerate. This means record labels will have ceased to exist as players of importance within a decade or so. Artists will be in hands of new gatekeepers. They may be just as bad off as musicians were with record labels, but those record labels will no longer be in control.
3. Streaming changes what we pay for
I was and am paying subscriber number 110 at Pandora, a US-based music streaming service with 48 million users. (When record labels locked it down to the United States, I circumvented that and still do.)
With my fervent criticism of the copyright monopoly, why was this? I was so early to give Pandora my money I was practically jumping at the opportunity. Number 110 out of 48 million. Obviously, I’m not opposed to paying. What did I pay for?
Well, here’s the thing. I refuse to pay for work that I can do cheaper myself. Copying is one example of such work. But what Pandora does immensely well is to make sense of the abundance. It sorts my music for me into moods that I can switch between: heavy trance beat for coding to blast out irrelevant chatter and noise, soft ballads for dinnertime, medium-paced 70s and 80s rock when I just want to feel good. Doing this with my MP3 collection would take days, and I’d rather pay Pandora to do it for me.
But I will never pay somebody just to access that culture and knowledge. I find that idea offensive.
This goes well in line with what many people have written about scarcity and abundance. As the copyright monopoly ceases to be cared about in the slightest, culture and knowledge becomes abundant. With each new abundance comes a new scarcity, in this case the ability to sort the abundant material in ways that add value. I’m prepared to pay for that.
In any case, other aggregators than record-label-controlled ones like Spotify are catching up quickly with similar services. The record label part of copyright industry will need to adapt entirely or be gone within a decade. They can’t behave like they’re selling a product when we’re only prepared to pay for a service.
Book publishers may have an even shorter expected lifespan, depending on how quickly reader tablets catch on. Movie and game publishers have a bit more inertia. For now.