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Communications of the ACM

Economic and business dimensions

Digitization and Copyright: Some Recent Evidence from Music

logo for an anti-copyright infringement campaign

The original logo for a 1980s anti-copyright infringement campaign by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), a British music industry trade group.

Credit: Chris Angle

Examining the effects of stealing on producers and consumers.

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CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the October 2012 CACM (
--CACM Administrator

Notwithstanding the anti-copyright logo illustrating Joel Waldfogel's Viewpoint "Digitization and Copyright: Some Recent Evidence from Music" (May 2012), legal attacks on unauthorized copying did not begin with Napster in 1999 but have been around since at least the first read/write media allowed copying, including audio and video cassettes in the 1980s and recordable CDs in the 1990s.

The earliest corporate legal resistance to illegal copying of music in the Napster era involved the MP3 format, not cassettes, reflecting the recording and distribution industry's concern over the new technology-enabled ease of copying and sharing with no loss of quality. This was before any particular company, including Napster, had the ability to complicate the business situation by providing the peer-to-peer option to millions of everyday users. The target was individual sharers, not the media that made sharing possible. However, all such campaigns ultimately failed to prevent unauthorized copying of copyrighted work, even as some facilitating organizations were sued out of existence.

Napster also heralded more permissively licensed music. Creative Commons licensing followed, making it easier for artists, as well as rights holders, to adopt revenue models different from the traditional numbers-of-bound-copies as set by distributors. Though difficult to say which came first, there was a strong cross-influence (so at least some correlation) between zero-cost copying and permissively licensed creation of free-to-copy works. Waldfogel said that, given there is more illegal copying today than ever before, there should likewise be a decline in production, as a new musical work should earn less money when it can just be copied. However, the volume of new work has not declined.

So Waldfogel's hypothesis (or my understanding of it) means creation is not inhibited, and some newer creation, distribution, and payment models are based on metrics other than traditional per-copy margin. It is not that Waldfogel's metrics distort the legal foundation of copyright-protected music publishing and distribution but that the legal foundation has produced a market in which what the distributor is able to measurereviewsis distorted by that foundation. Music critics are more likely to comment on a work produced and marketed by, say, Sony than on the equivalent work recorded and distributed independently by an individual musical artist directly.

Even though some well-known bands (notably Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead) have produced permissively licensed (and widely reviewed) albums, they follow Creative Commons licensing, not borrowing and redistributing permissively licensed music but creating new works covered by a permissive license to begin with. Most composers never attract much attention because they are not part of the established distribution and promotion ecosystem, even if their work reaches a potentially worldwide audience online, free of licensing barriers. Waldfogel's metrics reflect the commercial and cultural effects of digital creation, rather than raw sales numbers.

Gunnar Wolf
Mexico City

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