Music, Downloading, and the Fan Community

I’m going to wax lyrical about the humble hyperlink – it’s quite remarkable where just clicking links can take you sometimes! One of my favorite blogs is Nerdcore, partly because its mishmash of German and English keeps me up on my German while throwing me a few lines of English when I get stuck. Plus, like its name implies, it’s got all sorts of cool stuff that appeals to nerds and Digital Natives like me. Last week, a post on Nerdcore quoted linked and quoted liberally from a five-part Hypebot series on Digital Natives and the music industry. Some of the words and themes definitely sounded familiar, so lo and behold, it was good to see Born Digital quoted in part 5 of the series.

The entire series is fantastic, by the way. Hypebot’s associate editor Kyle Bylin draws on many of his personal experiences to offer up thoughts on the relationship between Digital Natives and the music industry. The most pressing issue is, of course, digital piracy. When John Palfrey, Diana, and I were invited to speak at Google DC last fall, one of the most salient questions posed was why Digital Natives seemed to have so few moral qualms about illegally downloading music from the Internet. Diana wrote a follow-up post exploring some of these reasons in terms of simple interface. Bylin, in Hypebot’s five-part series, delves into some of the deeper cultural issues that lead Digital Natives to illegally download music.

Bylin especially talks about the fan community that surrounded his interaction with music:

A digital community had been formed that transcended our own niche interest in Linkin Park or posting lyrics. It was as if the more individualized we became, the closer we were drawn to each other. Bound no longer by our musical taste, but our desires to participate, challenge, and push whatever envelope that appealed to us. Through MSN and the message board, from various parts of the world, we created, connected, and directed a fan experience that shaped our collective identities on and offline. >>

While I didn’t share an experience as intense as Bylin’s, I have to agree that my own music tastes were largely shaped not by my friends immediately around me but an online community. These days though, it’s a little unsettling how many of the new artists I discover are through Pandora! What implications does this fan community model have on the future of music though? Nancy Baym is quoted to further elaborate:

As the experiences of music fans shifts from the offline world to those encountered online, Nancy Baym states in her keynote, ‘Online Community and Fandom,’ that, “The Internet has transformed what it means to be a music fan. Fans can and do build communities more rapidly and successfully now than ever before, with consequences not just for their own experience of music, but for everyone involved in the creation, distribution and promotion of music in any capacity.” Elaborating further that, “fandom is social interaction.” because it lets fans share feeling, build social identity, pool collective intelligence, and interpret collectively. Interaction in this domain not only creates the possibility for digital communities, but it enables fan empowerment. Highlighting these five qualities of the Internet, Nancy says that it has made fans powerful because it, “Transcends distance and extends reach, provides group infrastructures, supports archiving, enables new forms of engagement, and lessons social distance.” >>

It also makes sense that the feeling of community comes hand in hand with peer-to-peer filesharing. What is obvious to all is that the music industry’s business model must evolve to incorporate the increased strength of digital fan communities. Since Radiohead first offered its album for free download, artists and record labels seems to have gone the road of deemphasizing mp3s as a major revenue source. U2’s latest album is available on Amazon for only $3.99.

More thoughts on digital piracy.

– Sarah Zhang

Pirates, peers and intellectual property

With the advent of new media devices, the way information circulates is reformulated. In this blogpost I would like to talk a bit about the origin of copyright, issues that have arisen from its creation, and how this tool is used today, observing which purposes and interests it stands for.

In his book, “Intellectual Property and Copyright Issues in the Global Economy,” Downes writes that the history of copyright beginning with the creation of the printing press in the 15th century. The historical context in which copyright law emerged was characterized by the innovation of reproducing information at less cost, and the ability of transporting and registering information at a higher speed. Before the printing press, everything had to be hand written. During those days, the basis for introducing the copyright law was to protect the right of authors so they could profit from their own work.

Copyright allows owners of information to control what happens with their original productions. Any kind of circulation of copies from the original version will be protected by the copyright law and ownership rights are guaranteed by it. However, the original purpose of copyright law has evolved through the years, and today it is percieved much more differently. As Downes notes, these “creative acts” come to be “commodities” – morphing readers and writers into consumers and producers. It is due to this process of turning creative productions into commodities that the copyright is described as the “enclosure of the information commons.” From the moment that copyright law starts being used, “commons” are no longer seen the same way and are regulated by a new set of conditions. Once information becomes a commodity, it is controlled by conglomerates which have money to generate information and create corporate rules of production from which they can profit. The reason for creating any kind of information ceases to be attached to the quality of the information and becomes exclusively based on how “sellable” the product is, rather than the product as simply a piece of human creativity.

This argument leads to the influence of copyright law on the free flow of information. On the one hand we can understand that copyright was developed to protect the author’s right. However, when art or information becomes a commodity, its use is dictated by the power of corporate conglomerates such as AOL, Warner, and Universal Studios. The existence of copyright law guarantees that the information available on the market is protected, which should benefit the free flow of information. However, once copyright law centralizes the power of choice in the hands of those who own the power to produce, reproduce and circulate information, it also restricts the number of authors producing information. Only some will have their work reproduced either because there is not enough money for all the information to be circulated or because the information may not go along with corporate interests. Therefore, copyright at the same time enables and impedes information to flow. On the one hand it allows information to be spread all over the world but it also restricts the sources from which this information will come, privileging points of view which are compatible to the interests of some corporate minorities.

In this context, I see the Internet as a possibility to change this scenario. In his seminal text “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin talks about the effects of technology on the reproduction of art. At a certain moment of history, reproducibility of information reached such a high level that it took away the tradiational aura that used to surround art work. As a consequence, art work has become more accessible. Having this process of reproducibility allows the production of art work to be subsumed to corporations that would have the means to reproduce in big scale (nowadays we might say globally) art work according to their interests.

With peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing through the Internet, copyright is being challenged, and the flow of information and its use is being drastically changed. The Internet allows information to be reproduced for lower costs and decentralizes the power of production which used to be owned by corporate conglomerates. With online peer-to-peer file sharing, a diverse range of productions are offered for free worldwide. The potential effects of this kind of activity are that people may benefit from the equal and free propagation of all categories of information which come from different places and defend different perspectives. The sharing of information through the Internet represents an important change, increasing the possibility of people having their voice heard around the world, as Martin Laba writes in the book “Pirates, peers and popular music”:

the story of peer-to-peer file sharing is infinitely more than a story of the shift from the analog to digital technology and technological capacities, it also details a profound shift, a deep and active engagement with the possibilities – some obviously illegal – of new enabling technologies.

Reproducibility has become so widespread that it has decentralized the production of information and enabled people to have voices as loud and powerful as corporations. As a result, traditional productions of knowledge, such as the Britannica Encyclopedia, are competing with online tools such as Wikipedia; and P2P file sharing has become pervasive, especially in regards to reproducing music. In Born Digital, Palfrey and Gasser note, “Shawn Fanning let the genie out of the bottle when he released Napster. Not even a federal court could put it back in.” I believe other genies as Fanning’s benefit all counterhegemonic activity that happens on the Internet. It seems that means can still be controlled by noncorporate power, at least for some time, and that might result in activities from which society can benefit.

Digital Piracy – The Other Side

I say the other side because having stayed and explored the issue of digital piracy in the US, I have come to find there is a definite dichotomy in the way it is perceived and hence handled there and internationally.

Learning about cases such a Zach McCune’s, is definitely a step forward for the thousands of teenagers out on the Internet who are unknowingly downloading music or sharing files – as they can truly come to realize the implications of their actions. But in truth where does piracy truly begin? Can we classify the first time an 8 year old make a slide show and adds music of a known pop star without referencing them as piracy? Or is the first time that 8 year old downloads a music file without having to pay for it? For many teenagers, the line is simply too hazy to see through.

And so the question arises, why aren’t they taught the differences and definitions from an early age?

Evidently, it seems only recently have educators come to realize the intense implications of the Internet in digital natives’ lives – for the first time in my school’s annual anti-bullying campaign this year cyber-bullying was tackled as a separate and important segment of bullying – and so it is only now that issues like piracy can truly be explored.

On returning from my internship at Berkman, I have a definite understanding of the do’s and don’ts of online file sharing, but sadly it is not the same for many of my friends and associates; many of whom carry 8GB of iPods all filled with music obtained from sites like Limewire. And while many of them simply do not care about whether the recording industry is losing out on money, they do take a step back when I relate some of the incidents I heard of first hand and where many have had to face the wrath of the RIAA. And this is where the international aspect plays in – while downloading music is to a large extent gone unnoticed where they live, it is a major issue in countries like the US. And so results in incidents where many international students find themselves being sued for doing something in college which they had been doing freely for a majority of their life.

Piracy, like many other issues related to the lives of Digital Natives, has no easy solution. Especially because different parts of the world tend to be viewing the issue in varying degrees of importance. However, not all hope is lost – every time one digital native is able to relate this information to another is a step forward. And so the evidence is clearly in favour of implementing a system of education, which can inform them of the issue in a direct way.

I could not help but smile when last week I heard a friend shouting at her brother (currently a freshman in a US college) over the phone to stop downloading music for free as he previously used to.

Yesterday, she told me that he had listened to her and so stopped.

-Kanupriya Tewari

Turning Digital Pirates into Youth Legislators, a possible solution?

I remember coming across a post a while ago by our friends at Global Voices about the way in which Hong Kong was fighting piracy in the country. In 2006, the state enlisted Youth Ambassadors to monitor the web and report offenses. Soon after this army of “teenage internet spies” was released into cyberspace, more than three-fifths of the offending postings were deleted.

It was an interesting approach to say the least. Although, I must admit that there’s something incredibly unnerving about boy scouts, girl guides, and other uniformed youths between the ages 9-25 being armed and honored as a youth brigade that sounds like it came out of a George Orwell novel.

So if the solution to the problem of piracy among digital natives is not implementing a teen spy program, what is it? As Diana wrote, “how should the black line between right and wrong be enforced?” Born Digital provides helpful starting points for what parents, teachers, technologists, and law makers need to work together on to accomplish. The two I found most important were to use the law to encourage Digital Natives’ creativity rather than stunt it, and also to educate DNs about what the laws are in a way that they will understand and appreciate – something which the Creative Commons project has been doing great work on.

Although I’m not not a fan of Youth Ambassadors and teen spies as a solution, I do believe it would be beneficial to have Youth Legislators. If this is an issue affecting, and arising primarily from, the Digital Native community, it is those that should be made a crucial part of the law-making process. As John Palfrey and Urs Gasser note in Born Digital, “In an environment where almost everything is possible, but not necessarily legal, it’s crucial that we teach Digital Natives about their responsibilities, as well as about their rights.” If we want young people to be engaged and interested in civics and their rights, and if we want them to believe they can make a difference in how those rights are dictated, we need to allow them to be active, vocal participants in the dialogue on where that “black line” should be drawn and how to effectively enforce it.

Piracy: The Invisible Line Between Right and Wrong


It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience: last Wednesday, Sarah and I got to share a stage with John Palfrey, Pablo Chavez, and, best of all, Google DC‘s green bouncy-ball. Google’s DC office invited John Palfrey, Sarah, and me to participate in a book talk about Born Digital. Though the Digital Natives team has done plenty of these book talks lately, this was the first one where the Digital Natives interns got to tag along. It was amazing to see so many people at the talk, and we’d like to thank Google (and John Palfrey!) for giving us the opportunity to speak both as book interns and as Digital Natives ourselves.

The talk covered a lot of ground, but one of the most interesting questions tapped into this week’s theme: piracy. When Q&A time arrived, a line of handsomely suit-jacketed individuals rose and gently snaked behind the microphone, and eventually we got to this question, (paraphrased): “Whatever happened to the black line between right and wrong?” The question, of course, was posed in relation to peer-to-peer filesharing and media downloading in general.

So, whatever did happen to the black line between right and wrong?

Well, “right” and “wrong” feel suspiciously similar when both are accessed through desktop clients. One of the main findings of Born Digital regarding piracy was that, out of a sample group of Digital Natives, 90% engaged in “illegal downloading.” The other 10% downloaded music through iTunes. But only when their parents had given them gift cards to do so. For Digital Natives, downloading songs through Limewire or similar programs doesn’t feel “wrong,” necessarily. Downloading music through iTunes doesn’t feel “right.” Both feel, very simply, like the obvious way to get music: through a desktop client that pulls songs down from the cloud. And that feeling of obviousness is the new thick black line to be reckoned with. No record label, however beloved, is going to convince Digital Natives to retreat to CDs. Though the record labels are getting used to this fact—throwing their weight behind services like imeem and warming up to the new media marketplace of iTunes—it’s still a stark, confronting reality for many in the traditional music business.

It’s not that kids don’t have morals. It’s that they don’t understand why anyone would ever get music any other way.

These statistics in hand, where do you think the music industry and media conglomerates are headed? Where should the black line between “right” and “wrong” fall, and how should it be enforced? How, and to whom, should it be taught?

Thank you again to Google DC for an engaging conversation and an amazing opportunity. We’d love to see the conversation continue—in the comments, the blogosphere, and elsewhere!

Picture courtesy Jesse Thomas.

The Ballad of Zack McCune, Part 3

If you need a refresher, watch Part I and Part II.

In April of last year, Zack McCune was sued by the RIAA. He ended up $3,000 lighter (he settled), but with a much richer understanding of the contemporary debate surrounding music, copyright law, and file sharing. Part I gives an intro to his story, while Part II explores the disconnect between young downloaders and the recording industry. Part III, presented here, concludes Zack’s misadventure and examines where it led him: to the Free Culture Movement, which advocates more flexible intellectual property law.

This video was produced by Nikki Leon and John Randall. You can watch a high-resolution version here.

If you’d like to learn more about illegal downloading or the Free Culture Movement, check out the following:

– The RIAA’s perspective on the issue
Free Culture, by Stanford Law Professor Lawrence Lessig.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group that works to protect individuals’ rights online.
Students for Free Culture
Creative Commons, a leading organization in the Free Culture movement. Founded by Lawrence Lessig, Creative Commons allows artists to modify the default “All Rights Reserved” copyright on their works to make them publicly available for distribution and remixing.

Come back every Wednesday for more multimedia on online privacy, cyber bullying, digital activism and more!

The Ballad of Zack McCune, Part 2

Here’s the second installment of our three-part video “The Ballad of Zack McCune.” You can view part 1 here.

What do you do when you’re sued by the recording industry? And how do kids and teens reconcile the law (and corporate interests) with a culture of illegal downloading? Last year, Brown University student Zack McCune was faced with both of these questions. He explains…

Look for a new Digital Natives podcast every Wednesday, now through October. And Watch Part 3 of Zack’s story here on August 6th.

The Ballad of Zack McCune, Part 1

This video – “The Ballad of Zack McCune, Part I” – is the first of a three-part piece created by Nikki Leon and John Randall of the Digital Natives summer team. It marks another installment in our weekly “Digital Natives: Reporters in the Field” series, in which we delve into a variety of Digital-Natives-related topics.

In this video, we take a look at digital natives’ attitudes towards illegal downloading. Part I, posted here, is the introduction to Zack McCune’s story — how he got sued by the Recording Industry Association of America and what happened as a result. Part II examines the disconnect between youth and the recording industry, while Part III investigates how the experience got Zack interested in internet policy and the free culture movement.

Come back tomorrow for Part II, and stay tuned every Wednesday for new podcasts on cyberbullying, digital learning, online activism, and other Digital Natives issues!

UPDATE 7/23/08 Part 2 has been posted here.

Avast! or, Language and Behavior

It’s not controversial to note that the meaning of words changes over time. Within the same language, different groups and cultures use the same words to different ends, or different words to the same end. It is widely noted (as so often happens when there is a linguistic shift) that Digital Natives not only alter the meaning of pre-established words but also change more basic elements of language like sentence structure, spelling, and capitalization. While many self-appointed defenders of language bemoan IM and SMS shorthand, 1337 culture, and LOLcat macros, I think that they demonstrate not the intellectual laziness but the creative depth of online culture. Creating new, highly phoneticized spellings for words is not an abuse of language but a respect for the medium and playfulness with it.

So what to make of the usage of “pirate” and “piracy”? Once conveying bloodthirsty terror, “pirate” to most Americans today evokes images of lovable rogues. Holders of copyrighted materials have used pirate to describe infringing users for at least a few hundred years, with mixed results. Pirate radio of the 1970s was largely stamped out as buccaneers of the Main were — with the force of governments — but piracy in software and media is proving more difficult to address. There are a variety of reasons for this, and the term “pirate” itself is changing in ways that were difficult to predict. Physical piracy in software and media (that is, where DVDs or CDs are produced to imitate [usually poorly] the real thing) in developing countries is difficult to the point of near-impossibility, given that (i) a “legal” license for Microsoft Vista can run to several months’ wages for most workers, and (ii) the copyright holders are often half a world away. Some governments at the behest of media and software companies have begun to crack down on the mass piracy of those materials, but realistically stand little chance of doing anything more than diverting current distribution channels to more distributed ones. Rich countries, with more enforcement resources, do not have the same problems with counterfeit physical goods.

Rather, the North has a booming trade in online piracy. Media organizations such as the MPAA have, as readers will be aware, propagated a maximalist definition of piracy:

Movie pirates are thieves, plain and simple. Piracy is the unauthorized taking, copying or use of copyrighted materials without permission. It is no different from stealing another person’s shoes or stereo, except sometimes it can be a lot more damaging.

Many – Digital Natives especially – are unconvinced, and might respond “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” At the top of that list would have to be Rickard Falvinge, founder of the Pirate Party in Sweden. He talked about this explicitly in a 2006 interview with Wikinews:

The name “Pirate Party” seems to identify the party with what is currently defined as a crime: piracy of software, movies, music, and so on. Will a name like “Pirate Party” not antagonize voters, given that the label is so negatively used? How about potential allies abroad who argue for a more balanced copyright regime, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation or Creative Commons?

Oh, it is a crime. That’s the heart of the problem! The very problem is that something that 20% of the voters are doing is illegal by punishment of jail time. That’s what we want to change. Where the established parties are saying that the voters are broken, we are saying it’s the law that is broken.

Besides, it’s a way of reclaiming a word. The media conglomerates have been pointing at us and calling us pirates, trying to make us somehow feel shame. It doesn’t work. We wear clothes saying “PIRATE” in bright colors out on the streets. Yes, we are pirates, and we’re proud of it, too.

Well-crafted public relations campaigns can have enormous influence on public attitudes and behavior, but campaigns of linguistic meaning are a trickier business. Meaning is constructed in practice, and the ultimate success of either the MPAA or the Pirate Party will be based not just on what they convince the public piracy “means” but on the value judgments that the public places on that meaning and their own behaviors.

So – are you a pirate?

Jacob Kramer-Duffield