This Year’s South By Southwest Festival will see the premiere of several notable music documentaries, with themes ranging from the digital download revolution to a little-known secretary for The Beatles. The new documentary Downloaded tracks the precipitous rise and fall of Napster and the whiz kids behind it: Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker. Fun fact: it’s directed by Alex Winter. Don’t know the name? Well, surely you know Bill S. Preston, esquire. Yep, that’s right. The new documentary film is directed by Keanu Reeves’ co-star in the famous Bill and Ted movies. Though it might come as a surprise, Winter made the jump to directing in 1993 with the comedy sci-fi flick Freaked. Excellent.
Another SXSW premiere this year is Good ‘Ol Freda, which tells the almost entirely unacknowledged life story of Freda Kelly, the president of the Beatles Fan Club, and the band’s “secretary” for 11 years. Kelly became close to the band during their early days as an up-and-coming Liverpool act and stayed loyal to the band during their rise to fame and subsequent breakup. The film depicts how, “as the Beatles’ devoted secretary and friend, Freda was there as history unfolded; she was witness to the evolution “ advances and setbacks, breakthroughs and challenges “ of the greatest band in history.” Even more reason to get excited for SXSW 2013.
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Not since the fall of file-sharing mogul Napster has the music industry pursued such a high-value case of copyright infringement. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has now developed an estimate of $72 trillion, yes, trillion, owed in damages from LimeWire in the aftermath of the termination of their file-sharing functions in October of 2010.
This staggering estimation was calculated by the distribution of over 11,000 songs, downloaded illegally several thousands of times each, and the RIAA is claiming compensation for each individual download that took place over LimeWire’s ten-year run. Computerworld.com reported that Judge Kimba Wood of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York found this claim to fall under the category of absurd results, saying that this award would amount to more money than the entire music industry has made since Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877. Judge Wood’s statement was rather accurate considering that the total combined wealth of the entire world, as multiple sources have pointed out, is roughly $60 trillion.
Judge Wood ruled that the music industry had the right to claim only a single statutory damage award from Defendants per work infringed. This could still force LimeWire to return up to $150,000 per download, totaling to over $1 billion in damages.
According to NME, Spotify today launched a new ‘Play’ button that allows users to embed on other websites any track from the streaming service’s library. Users now have the opportunity to post a track of their choice online and stream it from Spotify. In addition to embedding tracks, users will also be able to offer up albums and playlists of their choice.
In partnership with a number of media outlets, Spotify aimed at getting the word out in a collaborative effort with online sources such as NME.com. NME editor Luke Lewis said: “We’ve been creating Spotify playlists to enhance our blog posts for some time now, but we’ve never been able to embed them within the page itself. So this is a really cool new feature. It means that, from now on, when users read our album/track reviews, list features, or new band recommendations, they’ll be able to stream the tracks instantly via Spotify, within NME.COM “ without firing up the application, or opening a new window.”
In regards to the app’s launch, Gustav Sí¶derstrí¶m, Chief Product Officer at Spotify said: “We’re hugely excited to be launching the Spotify Play Button today, in partnership with the brightest and best sites on the web, such as NME. From today, the Spotify Play Button gives sites the ability to share access to any song, album or playlist through Spotify, creating a personalised soundtrack to their website or blog. Spotify is lighting up the internet with music.”
NME reports that Spotify was recently valued at over $3.5 billion. In addition, NME stated Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster and one of Spotify’s key investors, claimed the service will overtake iTunes in two years.
In case after case, the major record labels have sued everyone from college students to Napster, ostensibly on behalf of their artists. Unfortunately, it seems these gardian angels of the music industry may be less vigilant when it comes to their own accounting. According to Billboard, Weird Al Yankovic is suing Sony Music through his company, Ear Booker Enterprises, for $5,000,000. Yankovic is accusing Sony of acting improperly as the company took duplicate recoupments of his music – resulting in lower royalty payments. In addition, it is alleged the company has fallen short on their licensing contract with Yankovic – merely paying straight royalties for download sales instead of the 50% of revenues Yankovic’s licensing deal entitles him to. Most notably, Yankovic is accusing Sony Music of hypocritically refusing to share any money it received from lawsuit settlements from sites such as Napster, Kazaa and Grokster. Further, the lawsuit states that Yankovic is entitled to a portion of deal Sony made with YouTube – providing the website with “White and Nerdy” and other “official” Weird Al content.
Billboard reports Sony Music has yet to respond publicly to the allegations.
“Look, piracy is outright theft. People are out there blatantly stealing from Americans”stealing their ideas and robbing us of America’s creative energies. There’s no reason why we should treat intellectual property any different than tangible property.” “ Joe Biden
Piracy of music and movies is rampant. Technology has made it easier than ever for a person to clone and disseminate materials to which they do not own the rights. This is not in dispute. But attitudes about both sharing and receiving this intellectual property vary drastically.
Older generations tend to accept the notion that getting music or movies for free is stealing. When you’ve spent years paying a premium for such things, suddenly getting it for free just doesn’t feel¦well, legal. Of course, some of those people are more than willing to ignore that nagging feeling, especially once they get a taste of the good stuff (free music, immediately). And then, of course, there’s a younger generation for whom this pang of guilt simply doesn’t exist. It’s not whether they view it as stealing, it’s that they view the marketplace from a completely different perspective. For a generation raised on freely available media, the resulting cognitive development has transformed the question of whether receiving such media is right or wrong into a simple question of what is just. And when you determine your own standards of justice, all you need to do is self-justify your actions. You might not pay for the band’s album, but you’ll go to the show and buy a t-shirt. It all evens out, doesn’t it?
This is not to say they are wrong. They are simply adapting to a world in which there are no obviously correct sets of standards. Of course stealing, as a concept, isn’t right. But it’s just not valid to equate downloading a music file to smashing in a window at Tiffany’s and taking what you can grab, as Vice President Joe Biden tried to do recently in an interview with Variety. Biden’s recently ramped-up rhetoric leaves no room for the kind of compromise required to find a solution to the problem of media piracy. And, most crucially, it makes no distinction between counterfeiting goods and file-sharing.
Joe Biden comes off as a pretty amiable guy. While former rival Sarah Palin went to great lengths to sell herself as the gal next door, she was unfortunately up against the genuine article. In the average Joe contest, even Joe the Plumber couldn’t out-genial Joe the Senator. Now Biden has become the public face of the anti-piracy movement in Washington. And he’s perfect for the job. His plain-spoken demeanor makes his easy-to-grasp argument sound natural and compelling: getting something without paying for it is stealing. It can’t hurt that he undoubtedly buys this argument wholesale. And it is easy to imagine it being sold to him by his longtime friends in Hollywood, including that newly-installed bridge from DC to LA, former Senator/shifty character Chris Dodd”the new head of the Motion Picture Association of America.
Biden’s new crusade has resulted in a summit on the matter of piracy, to which only one side appears to have been invited”players in the major media companies. There is no one to make the argument that these players are on a completely different field than their would-be customers. That the VP and the media companies are still clinging to an outdated model is not a new complaint, even to them. In Variety, Biden counters:
“The fact is, media companies have already taken significant steps to adapt their business models to keep up with changes in how we watch movies and listen to music. Content is being offered to consumers in a variety of different ways that make it easy and cost-effective for people to access legal material. Anyone who does not understand this should simply talk with one of my grandkids.”
Obviously the media companies are aware they have a huge problem and have made attempts to keep up with the changing landscape. Unfortunately, they are always several paces behind both the consumer demand and the technology. And while they might have a new media department or brain-trust to make their shareholders feel better, the bulk of their energies and funds are spent on defending their property. The significant steps they’ve taken have only been because their hands have been forced. The ubiquity of Apple and iTunes (and others that have followed) has demanded that they play along to an extent, or risk losing the last major outlet they have for legal music sales. It’s worth noting that no representatives from Apple or other cutting-edge media companies were included in Biden’s summit.
Had the conglomerates recognized the futility of their position earlier and made compromises that would, in the long-term, strengthen that position, they would still be the present and future powerhouses in entertainment. Instead, they raged and struggled. Taught by decades of experience that they could bully their way through any challenge to their modes of operation, they realized too late that this fight was not simply them against a few Napsters. It was instead them against the free market and the inevitable advancement of technology, in addition to a new generation who have never known anything but this state of flux.
Biden at least has the insight that this is the challenge. In his interview, he says, Kids are taught that it is not right to steal a lollipop from the corner store. They also need to understand that it is equally wrong to knowingly steal a movie or a song from the Internet. And he’s not totally incorrect, either. In fact, it’s admirable that the Vice President is arguing for artists’ rights. But his approach leaves no room for a new solution. Any summit on the matter has to include all perspectives. That’s what a summit is. The approach that the other side needs to be taught a lesson is wildly misguided. As a result, Biden and his media friends will lose this battle, sooner or later. Perhaps he can take some comfort in his GRAMMY.
Warner Music Group put themselves up for sale in January, with consulting help from Goldman Sachs, but does anyone want to spend over $2.5 billion to buy Warner? Sean Parker does, or at least Sean Parker along with several other investors. The notorious Napster co-founder and Facebook investor certainly has a lot of money (roughly $1.6 billion), but his intentions with Warner are unclear so far. Some other notable members of the investor group include supermarket billionaire Ron Burkle and Doug Teitelbaum of Bay Harbour Management.
Parker’s history with Warner is a tumultuous one. Warner was one of the record companies that clashed with Napster years ago, resulting in various lawsuits that forced Napster into bankruptcy. It seems unlikely that he would get involved with buying out Warner out of spite, so what is the real reason? The most obvious answer has to do with his stake in Spotify: he is both an investor and an advisor to the music streaming service. Warner has been opposed to Spotify and reluctant to work out a deal with them. Spotify is popular in Europe, but labels like Warner have managed to keep it out of the states for the time being. More specifically, Warner chief Edgar Bronfman is against all free streaming services and claims they are “not net positive.” So buying out Warner would greatly help to facilitate a deal between the opposing companies, but that still doesn’t seem like a legitimate reason. The purchase would probably be the most expensive way to help Spotify license Warner’s library.
Peter Kafka of MediaMemo speculates that there is a simpler explanation. His theory is that Parker thinks Warner’s catalog is undervalued, “in part because of the digital revolution [Parker] helped usher in. Crippling an industry isn’t cool. Crippling an industry then scooping up its underpriced remains is cool.” Time will reveal Parker’s true motivation, but the buyout is far from a done deal. This latest group is just one of five bidders expected to make a offer to Warner in the next few weeks.