I’d never heard of the group OK Go until a month or two ago when my brother-in-law played me the video for their song “This Too Shall Pass,” from the album Of the Blue Colour of the Sky. I enjoyed it, but the group didn’t really stick in my consciousness until they released a second video for the same song, featuring a most remarkable Rube Goldberg machine:
At first, the most interesting question to me was, did they really shoot that in a single take? (Answer: it took them over sixty tries, and apparently they ended up having to splice two of them together.) With that answered, I discovered that in truth, the most interesting question is this: why did they make a second video to the song when the first one (featuring the Notre Dame marching band) was perfectly fine? As Dylan Tweney wrote on the Wired website,
OK Go developed a reputation for making catchy, viral videos four years ago with the homemade video for “Here It Goes Again,” which features the band members dancing around on treadmills. The company ran afoul of music label EMI’s restrictive licensing rules, which required YouTube to disable embedding, cutting views to 1/10 of their previous level. Now, the new video is up—and it’s embeddable, so the band seems to have won this round with its label—and is already generating buzz on YouTube and on Twitter.
Actually, it’s not so much that OK Go won the round as it is that they cut ties with their label and went independent. As one commenter on another OK Go video (“We’re Sorry YouTube”) put it,
OK Go got into a huge fight with EMI and Capitol over how their viral videos were distributed. They wanted You Tube viewers to be able to watch the videos without worries about the labels coming down on people who posted. In the end, they ended up leaving EMI and Capitol and forming their own label. In fact, they were so mad that’s why they created a second video for “This Too Shall Pass” with the Rube Goldberg machinery. This video is just their humorous way of dealing.
In the cheap political calculus that floats around, it’s usually assumed that because conservatives support big business, big business is politically conservative—which in economic terms means in favor of deregulation and the free market. In truth, though, this is a long way off the mark; big business is very much in favor of regulation, because regulation is the simplest way of squashing competition. It’s certainly easier than actually having to outcompete people. Thus the approach of big companies like EMI to something like YouTube is generally to try to regulate it by one means or another so as to maintain as much control as possible over how their material is used; they want to ensure that nothing happens that they don’t approve, and that they don’t miss any opportunity to make money.
Now, I don’t want to minimize the importance of intellectual property and intellectual property rights; it’s morally wrong when people who create things don’t profit from their creations as they should, and I’ll even grant that the companies which connect musicians and authors and other creative types to those who want to buy their creations should also make an appropriate profit for their work. But the approach EMI took here is extremely short-sighted, because it treats the economic process as a zero-sum game; thus it assumes that if someone is able to, say, watch an OK Go video someplace other than on YouTube (i.e., someplace that doesn’t have an ad for EMI up right next to the video), that represents a lost profit opportunity which can never be recovered. That simply isn’t true.
Rather, what OK Go understands and EMI (like many other corporations) doesn’t is that giving things away can often be the best way to make money. The best illustration of this I know of is the success of the Baen Free Library at Baen Books. Baen, founded by the late Jim Baen, isn’t a huge publishing company by any means, but it’s a significant one in the world of science fiction; and spurred on by Eric Flint, one of their authors, they opted years ago to start making a significant number of their titles available free online. As Flint explained at the time,
Losses any author suffers from piracy are almost certainly offset by the additional publicity which, in practice, any kind of free copies of a book usually engender. Whatever the moral difference, which certainly exists, the practical effect of online piracy is no different from that of any existing method by which readers may obtain books for free or at reduced cost: public libraries, friends borrowing and loaning each other books, used book stores, promotional copies, etc. . . .
Any cure which relies on tighter regulation of the market—especially the kind of extreme measures being advocated by some people—is far worse than the disease. As a widespread phenomenon rather than a nuisance, piracy occurs when artificial restrictions in the market jack up prices beyond what people think are reasonable. The “regulation-enforcement-more regulation” strategy is a bottomless pit which continually recreates (on a larger scale) the problem it supposedly solves. And that commercial effect is often compounded by the more general damage done to social and political freedom. . . .
We expect this Baen Free Library to make us money by selling books.
How? As I said above, for the same reason that any kind of book distribution which provides free copies to people has always, throughout the history of publishing, eventually rebounded to the benefit of the author. . . .
I don’t know any author, other than a few who are—to speak bluntly—cretins, who hears about people lending his or her books to their friends, or checking them out of a library, with anything other than pleasure. Because they understand full well that, in the long run, what maintains and (especially) expands a writer’s audience base is that mysterious magic we call: word of mouth.
Word of mouth, unlike paid advertising, comes free to the author—and it’s ten times more effective than any kind of paid advertising, because it’s the one form of promotion which people usually trust.
That being so, an author can hardly complain—since the author paid nothing for it either. And it is that word of mouth, percolating through the reading public down a million little channels, which is what really puts the food on an author’s table. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise. . . .
The only time that mass scale petty thievery becomes a problem is when the perception spreads, among broad layers of the population, that a given product is priced artificially high due to monopolistic practices and/or draconian legislation designed to protect those practices. But so long as the “gap” between the price of a legal product and a stolen one remains both small and, in the eyes of most people, a legitimate cost rather than gouging, 99% of them will prefer the legal product.
Of course, some might be skeptical: is it really working? Well, about a year and a half after Flint launched the Library, he wrote an extended piece showing that the Library had actually boosted sales of the books Baen gave away—by quite a significant amount, actually.
The Library’s track record shows clearly that the traditional “encryption/enforcement policy” which has been followed thus far by most of the publishing industry is just plain stupid, as well as unconscionable from the viewpoint of infringing on personal liberties. . . .
Making one or a few titles of an author’s writings available for free electronically in the Free Library seems to have no other impact, certainly over time, than to increase that author’s general audience recognition-and thereby, indirectly if not directly, the sales of his or her books.
I believe it also—I leave it up to each individual to weigh this out for themselves—places such authors on what you might call the side of the angels in this dispute. For me, at least, this side of the matter is even more important than the practical side. It grates me to see the way powerful corporate interests have been steadily twisting the copyright laws and encroaching on personal liberties in order to shore up their profit margins-all the more so when their profit problems are a result of their own stupidity and short-sighted greed in the first place.
I will leave you all with one final anecdote. Napster, of course, is held up as the ultimate “villain” with regard to the so-called problem of online piracy. The letters I received as Librarian were addressed to the issue of books, not music. Yet I was struck by how often—perhaps in a hundred letters—the writers would mention their own experience with Napster. And, in every instance, stated that their purchases of CDs increased as a result of Napster—for the good and simple reason that because Napster enabled them to sample musicians, they bought music they would not otherwise have been tempted to buy because CDs are too expensive to experiment with.
Not enough? Well, check out what Janis Ian had to say. Or consider a personal anecdote: a few days ago, Ray Ortlund put up a blog post with a video of Quicksilver Messenger Service’s song “Pride of Man.” An embedded video, note. I’d never heard of the group before, and neither had Sara; we now own a copy of their “Best of” album, and I think there’s pretty good odds we’ll buy more before all is said and done. If the record labels had their way (or if, at any rate, they all operated like EMI), that sale would never have happened.
Yes, copyright is important. Yes, intellectual property is important. The laborer is worthy of his hire, after all. But using copyright as a club, seeking ever greater regulation of people’s behavior out of fear of what they might do, isn’t just philosophically problematic—it’s unprofitable, because it has a dampening effect and a chilling effect on the very market on which companies depend. A receding tide lowers all boats, but a rising tide lifts them. Just ask Eric Flint.