Meera Nair

Looking for Charles Darwin

In Posts on May 11, 2010 at 4:06 pm

Last night I turned on CBC Radio One, with the expectation that Ideas would continue their story on the life of Charles Darwin. Part One had aired on Friday so naturally I hadn’t bothered to check the schedule; I assumed Part Two would be waiting for me at 9 pm. (I’ve since discovered that Part Two will air this Friday, with Part Three to come on Friday May 21.)

Instead of Darwin, Paul Kennedy was moderating a panel from the 2010 Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal. The discussion focused upon the future of the book. For the most part I enjoyed it, but …

A theme that emanated from the publishers involved was the risk to authors posed by digital technology and networks. It was noted that one should learn from the experiences of the music industry. Unfortunately, in the one hour segment of Ideas, the panel did not probe what those experiences were. Perhaps they did at the Festival but, if so, that discussion was not aired. Instead, the impression cast to the radio audience was that the music industry is continuing to suffer.

It is true that some musicians are unhappy with the capability technology offers to distribute music without authorization. It is equally true that some musicians are reaching success through the exposure offered by those same technologies. To persist in arguing that ill tidings have befallen the music industry as a whole is a narrow interpretation.

The decline in music sales that occurred in the late twentieth century and early in the new millennium correlates to a number of factors beyond technology: generally poor macroeconomic conditions (remember the dot-com bubble bursting), competition from newer forms of entertainment (DVDs and gaming were on the rise), changes in the retailing structure of music itself (goodbye small independent music stores, hello Walmart/Best Buy with their limited inventory) and, inflated CD purchases in the preceding years (when CD technology emerged, consumers purchased music they already owned in vinyl, for the pleasure of the perfect digital experience.) It is inappropriate to place undue emphasis on any one factor.

If one wants to really explore the music industry, a great deal of research has come forth from economists. A nice survey of the literature is found in Ruth Towse’s work, “The Economics of Copyright Law – A Stocktake of the Literature,” Review of Economic Research on Copyright Issues, 2008, vol 5(1), p1-22. In her conclusion, she writes:

Whether business models suited to Internet commerce can yield sufficient revenues to maintain a desirable (though not necessarily optimal) supply of cultural products without copyright protection is a hard question to answer. On the one hand, the whole economic organisation of the creative industries has depended for so long on copyright that we have copyright ‘lock-in’ and there would be high switching costs of abandoning it. This applies not only to the production and distribution by the industries but also to the system for collecting and distributing royalty revenues to individual creators. On the other hand, recent history has shown that adaptation to new business models can and does take place. — witness the growth of legal online services for downloading music. As Schumpeter believed, technological change triggers a process of ‘creative destruction’, whereby firms that do not adapt to change go to the wall in a Darwinian selection process of the fittest by survival. That is what we have recently witnessed at work in the music industry. Should ‘lame ducks’ be propped up by statutory copyright protection (Plant’s concern 70 years ago — Plant, 1934)?

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