Copyleft: The Grateful-Dead Effect

With the Supreme Court considering the MGM/Grokster file-download case, perhaps it is time once again to review what I have come to call “the Grateful-Dead Effect” and the inherent self-defeating silliness of the sort of protectionism represented by the anti-download forces.

Early in the band’s career, members of the Grateful Dead decided to assist those fans that they had noticed trying to tape their concerts.  Not only did they start setting aside special areas in the audience (where the sound was best) for the tapers, but they allowed fans to use their newsletters, etc. to arrange tape swaps.

By the mid 1980s, the Grateful Dead had become a perennial top live draw in America.  Their records were never big sellers (they really weren’t that good: this was never a studio band), but fans flocked to their concerts (which were good: I know, I saw them four times–not many, by Deadhead standards, but enough to appreciate them).

Why were they such a success as a live act?  In part, because they were so good but, in part, because they did allow tape swapping.  I knew people whose collections topped 100 different shows.  Their vacations, every year, took them to new places on the Dead tour.  They taped, traded, and listened.  They bought ancillary products.  They made the Grateful Dead a successful economic engine.

Of course, there was much more to the Grateful Dead than economics.  But economics is the point, here.  If they hadn’t opened things up, the Dead probably never would have achieved the kind of success that they did find.

The Dead were smart (and ethical, and moral, and caring–but, again, that’s not the topic).  Sony was not.  One of the reasons (aside from its tapes being too short to hold whole movies) that the Betamax failed was that Sony held its rights too closely.  VHS rights allowed many manufacturers into the game.  Those sets were instantly cheaper and VHS (not quite as good as Beta) took the field.  Apple was not.  It held the rights to copy the Mac too closely.  So it was Windows that came to dominate the field.

The home video system was once called a “tapeworm” eating at the heard of the film industry.  Jack Valenti and the Motion Picture Association of America (along with the studios) fought hard against it in the 1970s–and lost.  Today, they are all happy they did lose: at least two-thirds of film income now comes from ancillaries including videotapes and DVDs.  Because they were forced to let things open up, film industry profits soared.

The same will happen with the music industry, if it is willing to open up rather than gather in and “protect.”  No one would have predicted, thirty years ago, that ancillaries would one day drive the movie business.  But it happened, and we are all richer for it.

But people are fearful of losing what they have.  Most in the entertainment industry are risk-averse.

Fortunately, the momentum is on the side of the “pirates.”  In the long run, they will even be helping those they are “stealing from.”

Don’t be fooled by the musicians and song-writers the industry trots out to bemoan downloading.  It’s these very people who stand to gain the most, in the long run, from this downloading.

They are just too fearful to notice.

[At the risk of seeming shamelessly self-promoting, I would to recommend Chapter 7: The Question of Ownership in my book The DVD Revolution: Movies, Culture, & Technology.  Get your library to order it.  Also, check out Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig.  And if you really care about the issue, you should be aware of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.]

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