Piracy, profit & music

Guest Commentary

Volume 112, No. 12December, 2012

Marc Ribot


Music piracy is a worldwide issue. Recently, the German equivalent
of ASCAP and BMI caused a public controversy when it insisted on a pay-per-click
fee for German musicians when their copyrighted musical content was viewed on

The performance rights organization GEMA was opposed not only by
YouTube and its owner, Google, but also by the “Pirate Party,” a
recently formed German political party closely allied with the German
“Occupy” movement.

Standing in support of GEMA and musicians’ intellectual property
rights was German musician Sven Regener, of the band Element of Crime.

Regener and his fellow indie rockers would be normally expected to
be aligned with Occupy-type politics, and his surprising dissent on a popular
radio program went viral and helped spark a public debate.

Regener spoke out as much in disgust at the rhetoric of GEMA’s
opponents as in support of GEMA.

Some of GEMA’s actions remain controversial among many German
musicians (for example, a recent large increase in the fees paid by nightclubs
featuring live music).

But the type of arguments Regener addresses have sadly become
accepted as truth among large sections of the global public, including many
young music fans.

These include the patronizing idea that theft is O.K. because
musicians are already being exploited by our record companies, the disregard
shown by so-called “copyleft” advocates for the need of cultural
workers to be paid, the falsehood that theft only affects rich and privileged
“big rock stars,” and so on.

Ulitmately, in my opinion, fans who download are not the
“cause” of the piracy problem. Consumers were no more or less greedy
during the periods of record industry profit.

What has changed is not simply the fact that digital technology
enables piracy, but that piracy is generating profits for the tech industry.

Piracy produces profits not only for pirate Web site operators
themselves but also add value to all the legal hardware and software which
facilitate it.

The makers of that technology are the largest U.S. corporations. In
order to maximize the value of their product, they have effectively blocked
legislation to stop piracy – and so it continues.

In his essay at right, Sven Regener underlines the hypocritical
position of tech corporations and so-called “copyleft” ideologists who
attack our right to be paid for what we create, while fiercely defending their

One thing is certain: no public debate of these questions is valid
unless it involves musicians and other creative community workers directly
affected. Yet many of us have been afraid to speak out.

The tech industry and their very well-funded allies have
monopolized the discourse, not hesitating to launch boycotts, cyber attacks, and
social media campaigns against anyone supporting intellectual property

In the resulting absence of musicians’ voices, tech industry
allies have been able to perpetuate the falsehood that non-payment, underpayment
or theft is a victimless crime, or at worst, one affecting only huge rock stars
or “rich record companies.”

One thing the union can do is to create a space in which musicians
with views contrary to the tech industry can speak out.

Here is a translation and transcription (thanks to Mathew Partridge) of
the radio interview with Sven Regener that caused the uproar.