Cory Doctorow: Music: The Internet’s Original Sin

In a recent Search Engine podcast, host Jesse Brown wondered about music’s ongoing centrality to the debate over file-sharing and freedom. After all, the music

industry has all but abandoned lawsuits against fans, and services from to the Amazon MP3 store present a robust set of legit ways of hearing and acquiring music. The labels have even abandoned DRM. So why is the music industry the enduring bogeyman of Internet policy fights? Brown called downloading music ‘‘the Internet’s original sin,’’ and posited that we’ll go on talking for music for a long time yet.

I think he’s right. Music exists in a sweet spot between commerce and culture, individual and collective effort, identity and industry, and digital and analog – it is the perfect art-form to create an infinite Internet controversy.

Let’s start with music’s age. Movies are still in their infancy. Books are in their middle age. Stories themselves are ancient. But music is primal. Books may predate commerce, but music predates language. Our relationship with music, and our social contracts around it, are woven into many other parts of our culture, parts that are considered more important than mere laws or businesses. The idea that music is something that you hear and then sing may even be inherent to our biology. I know that when I hear a catchy tune, I find myself humming it or singing it, and it takes a serious effort of will to stop myself. It doesn’t really matter what the law says about whether I am ‘‘authorized’’ to ‘‘perform’’ a song. Once it’s in my head, I’m singing it, and often singing it with my friends. If my friends and I sing together by means of video-sharing on YouTube, well, you’re going to have a hard time convincing us that this is somehow wrong.

Music is also contingent. The part of a song that is ‘‘musical’’ is totally up for grabs, and changes from society to society and age to age. The European tradition has tended to elevate melody, so we think of ‘‘writing a song’’ as ‘‘writing the melody.’’ Afro-Caribbean traditions stress rhythms, especially complex polyrhythms. To grossly oversimplify, a traditional European song with a different beat (but the same melody) can still be the same song. A traditional Afro-Caribbean song with a different melody (but the same rhythm) can still be the same song. The law of music – written by Europeans and people of European descent – recognizes strong claims to authorship for the melodist, but not the drummer. Conveniently (for businesses run in large part by Europeans and people of European descent), this has meant that the part of the music that Europeans value can’t be legally sampled or re-used without permission, but the part of the music characteristic of Afro-Caribbean performers can be treated as mere infrastructure by ‘‘white’’ acts. To be more blunt: the Beatles can take black American music’s rock-n-roll rhythms without permission, but DJ Danger Mouse can’t take the Beatles’ melodies from the White Album to make the illegal hiphop classic The Grey Album.

The reality is that all music takes from all other music, anyway. They called Brahms’s first symphony ‘‘Beethoven’s Tenth’’ for reasons that are immediately apparent to anyone familiar with both composers. The parts of music that can be used under the banner of ‘‘inspiration’’ and the parts that constitute ‘‘infringement’’ or ‘‘plagiarism’’ or some other frowned-upon taking are arbitrary, and there is an enormous gap between how the law treats music production, how music producers describe what they do, and what scholars who study music see happening.

Meanwhile, the recording industry has always had a well-deserved reputation for corruption and maltreatment of artists. From the recurring payola scandals that crop up every decade or so to the never-ending stream of stories about the bad deal musicians get, the industry has never been able to credibly claim that buying artists’ creations from their labels will end up enriching the artists themselves. No fan cares much about the commercial fortunes of labels themselves – if we care about anyone, it’s the musicians. When you learn that – to pick just one example – the labels only recently ended the practice of running secret ‘‘third-shift’’ pressings in the dead of night, CDs that were not on the books and that were sold without generating royalties for the artists, it’s hard to credit the idea that taking music without paying for it always harms artists. Incidentally, the thing that stopped third-shift pressings wasn’t ethics or artists’ rights movements – it was the provision in Sarbanes-Oxley that made executives personally, criminally liable for balance-sheet frauds.

Maltreatment of the talent isn’t unique to music, of course. But movies don’t have obvious ‘‘creators’’ to sympathize with. Rather, they have directors (who tend to be either totally unknown or incredibly rich and famous), and actors (ditto). Even screenwriters have a reputation for being awfully well-off when compared to other kinds of writers, especially novelists. And while novelists are obviously the creators of the books we love, the standard novel publishing deal is much better than the standard recording deal – a licensed work rather than a work for hire, no expenses charged back against the creator, more transparent royalty reporting, etc.

I think even the record industry recognizes that appealing to the innate justice of its survival and profit is a nonstarter. That’s the only explanation I can think of for their campaigns in the past decade that have focused on the risk to young peoples’ moral character as a result of file-sharing. This is a pretty poor argument, of course: when the record industry spends half a century telling would-be censors that it is not in the business of safeguarding the morals of young listeners, it’s pretty rich for the same industry to turn around and announce that it is only suing and threatening kids to save them from a life of sin and degradation.

Music production is also in the sweet spot between movies and books when it comes to technological advances. It’s true that word processors, desktop publishing, and e-books have increasingly led to a credible notion of a truly independent author who does it all for herself, but the one-man music studio is a more advanced than the one-writer publishing house. Meanwhile, movies are still generally viewed as enormous collaborations requiring big, complex companies behind them to coordinate all the big, complex tasks that go into making a feature. There is a widespread sense that almost everything a record label does can be done by the musicians themselves, using the same equipment that the rest of us use to play Minesweeper and watch YouTube. The reality is that there are many musicians who can write or perform a song, but can’t arrange or edit or master or market or bookkeep that song, but it’s still pretty easy to imagine a world in which all the current record labels die, but recorded music continues to thrive.

Back at the beginning of the file-sharing wars, during the delirious 18 months during which Napster went from zero to 52 million users, much of the focus was on the novelty of getting music for free – but there was also a lot of buzz about getting some of that music at all. Prior to Napster, more than 80 percent of recorded music wasn’t for sale (except as uncatalogued, obscure used LPs). The record industry had always enjoyed both the savings from not having to warehouse and manage all those physical products, and the increased profits that arose from limiting choice. Napster, the original long tail marketplace, showed that audiences hungered for abundance of choice.

Twelve years later, abundance is the signal characteristic of all media. The media choices available to us are staggering in their variety and depth. As I write this in mid-2012, there’s an hour of new video appearing on YouTube every second. Video-on-demand services like Netflix present libraries that make the biggest Blockbuster store of yore seem like a single shelf at the back of the corner shop. Amazon’s self-publishing platform is attracting thousands of new books, from marginal titles of extreme specialist interest to algorithmically generated spam titles that repurpose Wikipedia entries and random scraped Internet text. There’s also plenty of fiction, some of which is brilliant and much of which is in the ‘‘90 percent of everything is shit’’ region predicted by Sturgeon’s Law. Curation is the watchword for the coming century: some process by which you are able to outsource some of the reviewing and ranking of all this material to communities, algorithms, or individuals.

But the accelerating growth of media in the online world means that no matter how carefully you choose your curators to ensure that you’re getting just enough media and not being overwhelmed, you will still end up overwhelmed. Everyone feels like there’s more media than they can handle coming in through the narrow, select channels they opted into, from Facebook and Twitter to a favorite blog or podcast. It’s not enough to choose one’s channels carefully; you also have to be able to skim what comes through those channels and make snap decisions about what you will experience in depth. Blog posts and quick YouTube clips are easy enough to glance at and decide whether they’re for you or not.

But novels and feature films are damned hard to ‘‘skim.’’ Figuring out whether you like a novel enough to read it through requires a substantial investment of time and attention. Deciding whether to watch a feature film, likewise.

A lot of music reveals itself well and quickly. Sign up for a predictive personal radio station like the ones provided by, and you’ll find that it only takes a few bars’ worth of sound before you know whether you’re going to keep listening or hit the skip button.

What’s more, music is well-suited to multitasking, that characteristic survival activity of the 21st century. It’s not easy to read a novel while doing something else – notwithstanding the comedy cliché of a bookworm proceeding down a public road with his nose in a book – and movies also want you to switch off everything else while you watch them.

Music is much less jealous of your attention, perfectly comfortable with fading into the background. If you’re one of those people who works with music on all the time, you want your music to come out of your device like water coming out of a faucet. It’s natural that music that ‘‘feels free’’ fits right into our lives.

It’s also customary – and simple – to reference music. Whistle the Jeopardy! theme when a friend dithers over the menu at a restaurant; ‘‘Whistle While You Work’’ when you want to get your roommates to pitch in and pick up after themselves; ‘‘Blue Skies Smiling at Me’’ when spring has finally sprung where you are (and ‘‘April Showers’’ when the rain comes back). Sure, we quote iconic movie-lines at each other, and everyone knows a few literary quotes, but music is quoted much more widely in our daily lives – and in music itself, which is chock full of snatches from other music – than other media. When it comes to learning to be a musician, re-use, copying,­ and performance are central: you learn to play music by playing other peoples’ compositions, period. Budding filmmakers may try to re-create their favorite scenes, or work in ways that are obviously inspired by their predecessors; young authors may copy out a favorite passage to see how it works. But music is a field in which it is considered central and normal to reproduce others’ creations for years, commercially and privately, as a means of earning your chops.

All these factors – music’s suitability to a world of abundance, music’s ubiquity in our culture, music’s freight in our history, and the industry’s tarnished reputation – mean that the Internet and music businesses will continue to collide for the foreseeable future. There’s no end in sight to this controversy.

Cory Doctorow is the author of Walkaway, Little Brother and Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free (among many others); he is the co-owner of Boing Boing, a special consultant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a visiting professor of Computer Science at the Open University and an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate.

From the July 2012 issue of Locus Magazine

24 thoughts on “Cory Doctorow: Music: The Internet’s Original Sin

  • Pingback:Cory Doctorow’s >> Blog Archive » Why we still fight about music and copyright on the Internet

  • Pingback:Cory Doctorow’s >> Blog Archive » Music: The Internet’s Original Sin

  • Pingback:Lastest Your Online Music News | Sell Music, NOW!

  • Pingback:  « Dr. Electro's Mixtapes

  • Pingback:Warum Melodien urheberrechtlich stärker geschützt sind als Rhythmen

  • July 5, 2012 at 8:17 am

    Fantastic article. The big question is this: In a world of free, abundant music, how do young musicians make a career for themselves to keep fueling the need for new media? Do we want to keep listening to “classics” only because the pop world can’t develop burgeoning talent with a little more (dare I say) substance, with staying power that lasts more than three weeks?

    Substance comes from years of living, breathing, playing, writing, and struggling with music, which dissipates as musicians lose time to hone their craft. Too often we ask musicians to maintain music as a hobby simply because the profession has more levity than most (touring ain’t a picnic; neither is being a jukebox for angry drunks; and getting on stage in front of 5,000 people is rarely everyone’s idea of a good time).

    The creativity well runs dry as our day jobs take up time, and artists begin to tire of the constant juggling. This is how most musicians meet their own creative deaths; suddenly the world is robbed of the next Neil Young or Joni Mitchell (which have literally become a part of our own cultural fabric).

    I ask this question not out of spite, but really, truly looking for a decent answer. How do we set up a system for pop musicians to make enough of a salary to support themselves while developing into professional players?


  • Pingback:ACTA, RIAA and Doctorow on “The Internet’s Original Sin”: Discourse Matters « Rewiring Virtue

  • Pingback:Music, Ebooks, & The Long Tail « SWONtech

  • July 5, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    An additional aspect: We should not forget that art and culture, same as any invention, is based on all the art and inventions which have been made before. No one can claim to bring up something entirely new. The songs we pay for, would not have text without society who built language, would not have certain instruments without all the people who led to their construction or certain styles, harmonics or melodies without the composers in renaissance or baroque who first brought it up. In the moment something is created, it has a dept to society. Society shares all this knowledge to the artists, so they can share their music and get donations from fans.

    The problem in all this is the industry who tries to block plattforms which allow artists to share and distribute their work directly. Fact is: The industry is obsolete. It must die, but it uses its money to corrupt and manipulate politics, (same like they manipulated charts for decades) in order to prevent their necessary downfall. Once the industry is gone, there is no problem anymore for the artists.

  • Pingback:Links from 05.07.2012 | Tarfus

  • July 5, 2012 at 4:59 pm

    how is porn not the original sin of the internet?

  • July 6, 2012 at 5:05 am

    Do you have any links for that “third-shift pressing” stuff you mentioned? It’s new to me and I’d love to know more about it, but my duckduckgo-fu is not strong enough to find any hits, my google-fu backup fails me likewise, and Wikipedia seems oblivious. I’m lost!

  • July 8, 2012 at 10:36 pm

    Cory- I love your fiction but on this issue you’re an idiot. Yes the music industry was in serious need of reform, obviously. But using that to excuse the rapacious greed and sense of entitlement that characterizes the tech industry (and even today’s consumers) is hilarious. Your argument is like saying “the NY construction industry” is controlled by the mob (true), so let’s tear down the construction industry without replacing it with anything. And no, I’ve never worked for the music industry. What pisses me off is that musicians are getting fucked again: All of these internet music sales ventures are relying on a huge back catalog to make money but are doing nothing to develop new artists. They DON’T care about music, they care about money. That’s why the songs on i-tunes aren’t as expensive as they should be (ask any artist and you’ll hear an earful about it)– because Apple doesn’t make their real money on i-tunes, but on selling the i-pods! That’s where the profit is for them. And how much of that i-pod money do the musicians share in? Zilch! How much goes to artist development? Nada. Or producing the music? Not a dime. I mean, why should an i-pod cost so much money but the actual music is cheap or even free (for sharers)?? Hence all this ‘debate’ is just crap: Once again artists are being used, exploited, and underpaid, while the music culture of America now centers on oversinging, unseasoned kids on so-called reality shows, where instead we once had Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, etc., etc. When was the last time you heard a new artist as GOOD as any of those musicians, whose voices and playing and composition could make you feel like green sparks of electricity were shooting up your back, whose phrasing could make you for a second…stop….breathing??? Can’t think of any new pop Mozarts? Well, I wonder why. But don’t kid yourself: What has happened isn’t because information “wants to be free”. It’s because of the same “I-got-mine-and-fuck-the-commons” greed that is overwhelming and dismantling our culture and even our planet. But, hey, don’t listen to me. You’ll see eventually.

  • Pingback:Cory Doctorow: Music: The Internet’s Original Sin (Locus Online Perspectives) | Lulu's Celebrity News

  • July 9, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    I’m not sure how to react to this article, exactly, as it ends up not really saying anything except “yup, shit’s fucked up.” The URL I have listed is an article about composer’s actual economic control of their musical product over the past couple of centuries, and I highly recommend anybody interested in the subject of musicians versus the internet to read blog, written by numerous writers within the music industry and the world at large.
    I think Mr Doctorow is not extremely versed (so to speak!) in music if he believes that it is only “melody” that is counted as owned or written, some of the big copyright infringement cases (e.g. “My Sweet Lord” vs. “He’s So Fine”) only counted melodic lines as they related to a sequence of chord progressions and rhythms. The blunt blurb-phase about the Beatles taking black music versus Danger Mouse sampling the Beatles is misleading. In your arena: yes, James Joyce can write a novel based on a Greek myth, but no, I can’t copy lines from this novel and rearrange them to form my book. The difference in music between reference and quotation is vast and contextual, as it is in film or writing—e..g. David Foster Wallace’s “Westward the course of the empire…” never quotes John Barth, but is obviously singlehandedly dealing the final blow to the “post modern novel”. J.S. Bach came at the end of his musical era and summed it up while referencing everything that came before without any direct quotation (unless given that as a canon to write!) There is no reason to think that music has different rules in this regard than film or books, however our culture is extremely caught in some form of media-necrophilia wherein the “creators” somehow believe that they have to recreate things that have already been created. That is completely untrue, I would say, it’s just laziness. (And necrophilia.)
    To me it sounds like your relationship to music needs to be taken bit more seriously.

  • Pingback:Music, Advertising And Sin // Advertising Week Social Club

  • Pingback:Cory Doctorow: We should not forget that art and culture, same as any invention, is based on all the art and inventions which have been made before « Sharing is Liberty

  • July 9, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    ‘Curation is the watchword for the coming century’ Absolutely and it will be interesting to see how this evolves. It will necessitate some structure (without that it is merley dissemination) but also need to be organic to be congruent with the innate properites of the internet. The two qualities are often in opposition so embedding both will be a challenge.

    Your points on sampling are correct (music is easier and faster to ‘test’) but I can’t rid myself of the nagging feeling that we are fostering a shallow relationship with music by our impatience and reliance on immediate response. Music – of any type – often rewards deliberate and patient attention. We’ve probably all had the experience of listening to a song, not liking it immediately, but finding more in it when we really listen several times.

    It certainly isn’t a reason not to change anything but we also need to be aware that we are creating an expectation of the right to gratification that isn’t healthy.

    I’m not sure that music and the internet have to collide. It does so now because we have failed to separate (and curb) coporate copyright from artistic copyright and so have come to the point wehere we have a distorted concept of what copyright is supposed to foster and protect. Right now, copyright is seen as a restriction. As a writer, I prefer to see copyright as an enabler.

  • Pingback:Cory Doctorow’s >> Blog Archive » Music: The Internet’s Original Sin

  • July 10, 2012 at 9:01 am

    A very well thought out & explained/backed up discussion on the subject, thank you Cory.

  • Pingback:Piracy & Copyright | Pearltrees

  • Pingback:Thoughts on culture in an age of superabundance | Spirit of Contradiction

  • July 13, 2012 at 4:52 am

    The controversy disappears once we abandon the idea that music can, should, or must be paid for by selling it in units.
    There is still industry control of the major means of promotion, but it’s obvious that the return (in numbers of units sold) for a “hit” is nothing like it used to be.
    Instead, shift the focus to the artist. By fans directly supporting the artist, whatever profit might be made from selling the “music” becomes irrelevant. The music is merely something given away as promotion.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *