Music in the Public Domain

I agree with many of Steve Bowbrick’s concepts about technology and the way that it has blurred our understanding of just what the public domain is. And he is right to identify that the definition of what is public and what is not is an age old issue. But, as with his example of communal grazing land – which all but died out with the advent of the industrial revolution – it is likely that the vested interests, in this case big media companies, will assert their authority and narrow the scope of what is public. Yet that is only treating the symptom, not the cause.

Media companies would assert that an song that is downloaded from a file sharing network isn’t public at all, but is in fact the property of the rights holders, and that it is no more in the public domain than a stolen car. But try telling that to the majority of downloaders. The bottom line is that most music fans don’t perceive file sharing or home CD burning as theft.

Consumers are pretty straight forward creatures: when they’ve bought something they understand it to be theirs and that they can do with it as they please. If they want to borrow or rent something they go to the library or to Blockbusters. In spite of what may actually legally be the case, consumers generally take the same approach with music, whether they have bought it or downloaded it. Downloading seems to have etched itself into the popular consciousness as some sort of act of purchase, not as theft, nor even borrowing. It is this subtle yet seismic shift in consumer behaviour which the record labels need to address if they want to have a client base in years to come. But they won’t achieve it simply by chasing file sharers through the courts, consumers need to be re-educated as to what music means as a commodity in the digital age.

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