It's no secret that I think Jim Griffin's plan for Choruss -- to set up a licensing system for P2P -- isn't just grossly flawed, but dangerous in many ways. We discussed at length why the very idea of any sort of licensing (i.e., a "tax") on online music is a bad idea
. We've also worried about the apparent bait-and-switch
nature of the plan -- in that, while it would grant either "covenants not to sue" or (potentially) "licenses" for any file sharing you do, it wouldn't stop the recording industry from still trying to shut down file sharing apps as illegal.
A few months back, I finally met Jim and was still left with many, many questions
about the program -- especially because I felt that when anyone tried to pin him down on any particular bad idea that's been associated with the project, he would cut off the discussion by saying, "we're just experimenting -- so just let us get data before you criticize." And this, in fact, is a part of the problem. Rather than discussing the merits of any particular idea, Griffin keeps suggesting that -- despite evidence, history or theories about how various license programs work -- none of that is relevant to discuss until he's got data on his particular experiment. The way the plan is structured is that different (as yet unnamed) universities and colleges will begin testing Choruss this fall -- and each university will set it up how they see fit, in order to get comparative data. Thus, some could
make it compulsory. Some could
make it voluntary. Some could
charge a lot. Some could
bundle it with something else. Some could
charge a flat fee. Some could
charge a per download fee. Some could
charge a per listen fee. But, if you try to dig down into the problems with any of these, Griffin has just said, "well, we're just experimenting, and we don't know if it's a good idea or not." Unfortunately, this avoids allowing us to discuss the details of why the concept is troubling, because we're told repeatedly it's just an experiment.
Jim Griffin to answer questions
That said, in an email exchange, Griffin agreed that if we asked folks at Techdirt what questions they had about the program, he would answer them -- and I hope that we can get more detailed answers. Now, to say our email conversation has been without conflict would be incorrect, and there was a bit of a misunderstanding about the timing of us soliciting questions (I had hoped to do it as a part of The Free Summit, which he was scheduled to attend, but for perfectly legitimate reasons, he was unable to attend at the last minute). But Griffin says he wants to answer whatever questions we have, and I'd like to send him some good ones.
My own concerns
To kick it off though, I'm going to share an edited/updated version of the last email I sent Griffin, after he asked again why I was so against Choruss. In pitching Choruss, Griffin likes to tell the story of the founding of SACEM, the very first collective licensing society. He talks about how since restaurants benefited from the music, they should pay for that benefit -- and how that's the basis of every collection society since: any place/service that benefits from music should pay for that benefit. I have serious qualms about that thinking, and here's why:
My worries about Choruss come from a few different angles. I think any sort of collective/group licensing scheme involving such a third party is an economically inefficient, and unnecessary solution, that ends up doing more harm than good. I know you like to tell the story of SACEM. To me, that's a horror story. It's a story of how to create a system that leads to massive wasted resources, inefficiency, a reliance on a bad (but easy) business model, followed quite quickly by regulatory capture that leads to an ever increasing inefficiency. Look at what SACEM has resulted in, and all I see are massive inefficiencies. The idea of adding to that legacy concerns me. If you look at collections societies, over time they just keep trying to increase how much they collect, and will often lean on the government for help in doing so. The story of PRS in the UK is instructive here.
My concern is specifically that we're seeing other business models that are working tremendously well. I know you were unable to stay for my keynote in Nashville, but I went through examples of many different artists (small, medium and big) who were embracing new business models to tremendous success -- none of which relied on any sort of licensing proposal.
So, then, along comes a licensing plan where I need to pay (and, yes, I know this isn't determined yet and experiments will occur) say... $5/month for Choruss. Now suddenly that's $60/year that I'm paying for music (some of which gets siphoned off by the bureaucracy in the middle, even if it's a non-profit, just for administration) that relies on some magic formula to figure out who it goes to. I'm now less inclined to spend additional money directly with my favorite artists, because I've already spent the money via Choruss. My favorite artists get less money (and I'm reliant on your system to make sure that my favorite artists are actually rewarded). My money is spent less efficiently, and now there's a group in the middle who has every incentive in the world (even as a non-profit) to try to get an ever increasing part of the pie.
That just doesn't make sense to me.
You talk about the two issues: collecting a pool of money and distributing it efficiently. What's wrong with letting the market do that? People are giving money, gladly, to the artists who give them a reason to buy. That's your efficient collection and distribution system all in one. Except it doesn't need a middleman like Choruss.
The problem the recording industry faces isn't that there hasn't been an effective licensing system in the middle. It's that they weren't giving people a reason to buy. A licensing scheme isn't a reason to buy. It's a removal of a threat. That's negative value (we won't sue!), not positive value (here's additional scarce value you want to pay for). The artists I highlighted in my presentation were all giving positive reasons to buy. I'm afraid that focusing on a system like yours focuses on that negative reason to buy (you won't get sued!) rather than the positive reason (check out all the benefits I get).
That's my big concern.
That concern is exacerbated by the fact that every time a direct question is asked about how Choruss will work, your response is "it's just an experiment, so we don't know." I recognize that it is an experiment and you don't know all of the answers, but it feels very much like a dodge. I'm sure it's a fine line, because there are many details you don't know about, but you've been so vague about everything that it's hard to know what to think. A bunch of universities have agreed to it, but who are they? Why would they agree to test something without the details being clear? Who's setting up what those details are? In Nashville, you said some would involve all students, but at the SanFran Music Tech event you were saying they'd all be voluntary for the users. It just has this quantum feel to it. Any time anyone tries to get specific and warn about a certain aspect, you can just claim "well, we might not do that."
My biggest concern, frankly, is that putting in this inefficient, unnecessary bureaucracy in the middle, we take away resources from the new, more efficient, business models that are working. Both times I've seen you speak about Choruss, you've claimed that those business models won't necessarily be harmed, because they can still be built on top of Choruss -- but that goes against fundamental economics. If people have less money due to Choruss, they're a lot less likely to buy into these other business models.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that competing between business models is a good thing, but the very foundation upon which any sort of collective licensing system is built is to basically get everyone to opt-in, somehow or another -- and thus is set up to crowd out more efficient business models. Otherwise it just doesn't work. So you have every incentive to get third parties (universities, ISPs) to put in place policies that either force, or heavily incentivize, their students/subscribers to adopt a much more inefficient plan. The incentives are skewed. You and the universities/ISPs benefit -- but users (and musicians) do not.
So, with that, let's kick off some questions that I have as "starter" questions, and let's see what else you guys can come up with in the comments. Also, feel free to let me know which of the starter questions/user submitted questions you like best. Once we have a good bunch, I'll send them to Griffin and when we get his answers, I'll post them here. Some of these starter questions are the same ones I asked earlier this year, but I've added a few as well:
- Why do we even need such a plan when plenty of musicians are showing that they can craft business models on the open market that work?
- How does adding yet another middleman make the music market any more efficient?
- What's wrong with letting the market mechanism handle the collection and distribution of the funds directly between musicians and fans?
- Will the recording industry promise to stop trying to shut down file sharing systems if this program gets adopted?
- Will the recording industry promise to stop pushing for 3 strikes if this program gets adopted?
- How will the program prevent the gaming opportunities, where artists set up scripts to constantly reload/download their songs?
- Why should music be separated out and subsidized while other industries have to come up with their own business models?
- Why should those who don't listen to much music and aren't interested in giving their money to the recording industry be required to participate if their university or ISP decides to make them?
- Why should we have a business model focused on negative value (you don't get sued), rather than positive value (here's something scarce that's worth buying)?
- The history of collections societies shows that they only tend to expand, and try to capture more rents. Why would Choruss be different?
- If Choruss becomes big, won't lots of other industries want in? Movies will want their own version. Then newspapers. And if newspapers are getting their cut, then why not bloggers too? Or blog commenters? Or just any website? The road this leads down is a bad one, where we end up creating massive bureaucracies to subsidize every form of content, rather than focus on business models where those content providers have to provide a reason to buy their particular product. How do you prevent that?