What To Do About Music Piracy
“ It [researching piracy] was valuable learning and my address book is now loaded with email contacts at dozens of labels I never had any reason to know. ”
The online theft of what is generally called Intellectual Property has gotten to the point of triggering backlash which began in November, 2010, when the Department of Homeland Security began to implement significant legal actions against a motley of online sites and counterfeit goods vendors.
The whole problem is exacerbated by safe harbor rulings dating back to the waning days of the Clinton administration, amid the height of dot com bubble frenzy and before the profound changes in content potential, following the build out of Web 2.0. At that time there was impetus to boost this new emerging jobs engine that accompanied the bubble.
This is the troublesome relic and here is Google's current answer. Huge, bloated Google is at the center of this mess. Some aspects are clearly not its fault, while others are more open to question and it is pretty confusing.
Google began as a "plumbing" outfit, making pipelines for content and a search system for finding it. Its original outlook has long been agnostic about what the content is. That may still be the most important thing to understand when making a game plan for coping with the collateral damage it has spawned as, in many ways, it is double-edged and the content community has been slow to use the facets that are helpful.
Yes, it sucks that the search system lets you easily find torrent download sites, but that can be good for the same reason. It makes reporting them easier. Torrent sites are the trailer trash side of music theft. More fastidious freeloaders avoid them because the sound quality is reputed to suck and the things are infested with malware. They are a job for the Fed unit, the ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Division), with its brand new National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center.
To get a sense of how one Google hand is oblivious to another, one need only compare YouTube with Blogger, and how the two divisions handle intellectual property complaints and problems. And it ends up manifestly unfair and half-assed for the following reason.
YouTube got pummeled early by the content industry so it has an elaborate and often confusing system of escalating responses to infringement complaints. They are strict, and the confusions are a regular item in the Feedback and Suggestion Forum there.
And yet, YouTube really boils down to free advertising for the content world. It is pretty difficult for most people to download (I don't know how to do it), and it doesn't lend itself well to file sharing. But it is more obvious and probably the closest thing to a social network play that Google has. It is also a "gotta have" website feature, along with Twitter, the Facebook "Like" function, and Google Maps.
YouTube is like the good kid who gets blamed for the stuff its evil twin does, and that would be Blogger.
I have built five blogs using the Blogger template and have been using it since autumn, 2006. My return to jazz advocacy began with a blog that I've now more or less given away to focus advocacy work here at All About Jazz.
It's a honey of a template; not too many bugs and all the features you could reasonably want. I'll keep using it for non-musical content, but I'm done with giving it free content for music until it cleans house and that may be coming sooner than many think.
It is a template of choice for dozens of would-be Robin Hoods giving away hundreds of legacy titles, corroding catalog value at a time when catalog depth is one of the most essential aspects of recorded music sales. And it is fairly sneaky, until you figure out how it works. The blogger secretes inactive links in the comments like the screenshot below. (I have redacted most of the code)
Music Thief said...
JANUARY 2, 2011 3:17 PM
The content of these things tends to be cut-and-paste. The album cover visual is from Google Images, post copy is from Scott Yanow or some other prolific record reviewer. The quality is higher, usually FLAC files or high end MP3. No, I'm not linking to a single one of them. This particular rodeo clown was a stalker and pest at my blog, and getting rid of him was a headache, so I just focused on his music theft blog and cratered it with piracy reports.
It was valuable learning, and my address book is now loaded with email contacts at dozens of labels I never had any reason to know. Google is generally unhelpful. Its reaction to problems its template causes has been inconsistent and spasmodic. A year or so back they were trigger-happy, and were nearly as strict as YouTube. The past year they've been so lax and sloppy, I soon determined that the most useful way to do a takedown was by hitting another critical point in the chain, the so-called "locker sites" a thief needs to store cumbersome download files.
That URL snippet above is actually a key to a "locker," with the music in it. That is mainly what these businesses do. They are technically just a kind of data transfer service but are mainly obsolete, in a time of cloud computing. Things go obsolete fast in web land, so their main remaining "customers" are music thieves. They do respond more quickly to takedown notices, as I discovered, to my immense amusement, by watching the comment reactions over at Mr Thief's stupid vanity blog.
I call these bloggers a flea circus, as a counterpart to the flea markets, where the Fed busts vendors of fake Gucci bags. They are vain and disturbed and, no doubt, paranoid at this point, what with all the lurking industry attorneys. Mr. Thief wants tribute in the form of ass-kissing comments thanking him, oh so much, for the wonderful lost music. He gets petulant when the praise ain't flowing. He is also jealous of other thieves who may steal his thief links to post in their own blogs to hog credit. He's been known to serve takedown notices on them. What a fun bunch, huh?
At the end of the day, these clods are probably doomed. You see, Google is increasingly eager to get a slice of download music sales with its knock off of iTunes, but the music industry is steamed and, so far, telling the Goog to piss up a rope. How long do you think the flea circus is going to last in that environment?
What You Can Do
And that's where you come in good readers: yes, the 28,000 musicians who are part of All About Jazz, and the 6,000 record labels and all of the generally honest fans who like the idea of Coltrane's heirs enjoying the fruits of his labor after cancer cut him short. I'm aware of all the arguments about the evil corporations making millions, but that went south several years ago. In the food chain of corporate evil, major labels have a long way to go to even catch up to Walmart, let alone Wall Street.
Those of you with music income aspirations, content business models and reverence for the actual humans who made music, and are gone, all have pretty good reasons to make yourselves heard. Some already are.
Mike Lombardo deserves to lead off. He is a guy in a rock band who is trying to get over as a musician and isn't ready to let his aspirations be scotched by utopian morons from the IT industry, who conveniently forget how they wouldn't last for a second if they weren't backed by a battery of Intellectual Property enforcements for patents, trademarks and copyrights.
It is a socially autistic crowd larded throughout with some pretty wild conceits for people whose work can be outsourced in a heartbeat to others with a better work ethic and manners.
It mainly seems to be a Google thing. The older Silicon Valley giants have more common sense and are less avid to bite feeding hands. I figure the Goog will wise up. It is having a mid-life crisis and flailing. The web will be dragged kicking and screaming to some degree of coherence with the laws and standards of the actual world we walk around in, and not some libertarian wet dream of cyber-Somalia, where fat warlords rule fiefdoms with small armies, pirates run amok and the hapless goat herdsthat would be most of usget stomped, right and left.
And I have a feeling this is the year when this all will sort out. Many people think piracy is too vast to control but my initial experiments with Mr. Thief's blogs suggest otherwise. Labels are still a bit punch drunk from all this and some underwent fairly destructive mergers. But they are starting to ask the right questions and pick better targets. This significant change in the Fed's outlook marks a shift past the starry eyed belief in the wide open web.
Taking down stolen content has two elements that need to operate in parallel, suppression and disruption.
One current advantage pirates have is the way search engine page ranking is driven by search traffic. If many people relative to the key word subject are picking the stolen moments, then the thing rises higher. That is the function of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). All marketing activity wants to have an eye to supporting page ranking. The role of the Facebook "Like" widget will be indispensable. All legitimate content, whether an Amazon listing or a review, will want a "Like" potential. Making full use of all sorts of free support aspects, like Wikipedia entries, Rhapsody options, and so on, need to be fully employed, because they have great free page ranking. Putting all of this into play suppresses pirate site page ranking.
The other element, disruption, turns on take down notices. As it currently stands, these can only be issued by the copyright holder, and with Google it must be in writing in a manila envelope delivered to Mountain View, preferably by Chihuahua cart, (just kidding about the cart). Google has recently added another general form for reporting infringement but it is limited to sites hosting Adsense. But the real critical node, the "locker," is more amenable and legally vulnerable. They are the "fence," after all. You can always also personally email the blogger for the happy hell of it.
Musicians and others can contribute to disruption by reporting links to the labels. This is a fascinating mission. Of the majors, at present, Universal Music Group is the only major label with a clear site link for reporting music theft. Just building up a working contact list was a handful. Smaller labels are generally easier. Labels with fewer than 500 titles can probably set up a working office task for this, maybe outsource reporting research. Larger labels can set up their own search algorithm crawlers to spot stuff. It may be helpful to add a bit of URL code, an encryption that is like a copyright work's cyber DNA that only exists on legitimate downloads and is pain in the ass to encrypt.
Disruption, by and large, should focus on providers and conveyers. Chasing the downloaders was a political mistake, as they were sympathetic figures. Look at regular law enforcement. They put more priority into prosecuting vendors of stolen goods and illegal items than they do on the customers. And the industry has search engines. You can't, as a rule, find a stolen car chop shop advertised or listed as such in a phone book. But good old Google, with its helpful torrent search option, breezily does it for you. How cool is that?
Initiating a Takedown
Here are the basic steps for initiating a takedown.
1. You spot music theft, your own or someone you care about;
2. Copy and post URL and any relevant links like the example above;
3. Find the label using Google search, and send the information. Putting "Music Piracy Report" in the message header with specific title/artist is valuable.
Here is a basic toolkit.
Here are the three main industry support groups.
- RIAA Piracy report form is always a fun place to start;
- BPI is the UK counterpart to RIAA and seemingly more astute as many of the discoveries regarding the role of search engines has originated there;
- IFPI is the international counterpart.
Here are the links for reporting to several File "Locker" providers.
Here's Google's current official advisory.
And here is the ICE program site.
Congress is working on a new set of laws to make adjustments to the problem and the general sense I've gotten now is renewed urgency on many fronts. I don't have a sense that the problems are insurmountable, despite the hand-wringing by various web apologists. A colleague also mentioned the potential, in a number of Black Hat techniques, that could seriously disrupt torrent sites and make them even more of a menace to users than they are now. It could get ugly.