A song writer makes a strong case against businesses that profit wildly from his and others innovators’ work.
Heavy metal band Metallica got serious about battling illegal downloading of their work in 2000 when drummer Lars Ulrich filed an unpopular copyright infringement law suit against Napster, naming 300,000 users. Everyone complained, but Napster was eventually shut down.
Recording artists and song writers remain easy prey for those who who make music files available to anyone with Internet access. Audiences including fans, businesses, software developers, and especially content providers, have portrayed victims as greedy and out of touch with the digital world, just as many tech companies depict all patent enforcers as “trolls.”
For better known artists, unpaid air time on sites like Pandora and Spotify serve as free publicity for their live performances and sales of their earlier or “private” work, but for less well-known musicians who lack the ability to sell-out arenas, the lack of compensation for air play can mean the difference between having a decent year or taking a day job.
Phantom Royalty Stream
David Lowery, the leader of two bands, Van Beethoven and Cracker, has become a celebrity among musicians, reports The New York Times. He has been speaking out about artists shrinking paychecks and the influence of Silicon Valley over copyright, economics and public discourse.
Lowery, a San Antonio native, is no run of the mill song writer. He is a trained mathematician and has worked as a quant trading derivatives and providing financial analysis, and is a lecturer in the University of Georgia’s music business program.
His blog, The Trichordist, has documented the income statements associated with his and other musicians work. He claims that 1.1 million plays of one of his popular song, “Low,” on Pandora has netted him just $16.89.
Song writers, recording artists, visual artists and inventors are innovators connected in spirit but bound to different innovation rights. As innovators, they share common challenges for acceptance of their ideas and for economic survival among those who have no qualms about not paying them anything if they don’t have to.
Their problems are fueled by the speed and accessibility of the Internet, which are both a boom to artists and thinkers and a threat. Consumers and businesses crave low-cost products, or better-still free ones. Companies that need to sell new and more appealing products have a ravenous appetite for inventions. Often, they are actually incremental advancements, or “re-invention”, which their internal R&D is only partially able to provide.
Patent holders can learn from musicians’ copyright battles with content providers. The frequency and scope of invention infringement has grown, and routine abuse of patent holders’ rights, like downloading, has been as widely accepted.
Inventors and their advisers need to educate audiences about how the patent system works and how it must be protected from bad actors. They also need to show the problem has a human face, and that unauthorized patent use affects not just “eccentric” inventors and aggressive businesses, but consumers, jobs, and the ability of the U.S. to compete with other nations. Invention theft affects the quality of innovation itself.
There are those who would prefer to turn the story line into one about patent “trolls,” when it is really about business acting in bad faith to get the best deal on inventions or improvements that are not theirs.
Lowery’s blog is subtitled “Artists for an Ethical and Sustainable Internet.” Patent holders would be wise to consider adopting a similar tag line for the ethics associated with patent filing and patent quality.
At the Roots
Audiences need to know that unauthorized use of inventions and demonizing all patent enforcement leave many talented, necessary individuals and businesses out in the cold. Moreover, it weakens the DNA of innovation, which is not easily repaired.
Illustration credit: Slashgear.com; thetrichordist.com