Teenager And Composer Argue Over File Sharing
from the fight-it-out dept
Early last week, reader dcm sent over an interesting blog post by Jason Robert Brown, a somewhat well known theatrical composer where he posted a debate he had with a teenager concerning file sharing. Since then, it appears the story also appeared on Reddit and some other sites, and now everyone is submitting it to me (that’ll teach me not to leave interesting stories to write up over the long weekend…). Anyway, the basics of the story aren’t too surprising: Brown is upset that the girl isn’t paying him, the girl tries to explain that she wouldn’t buy his work otherwise (she doesn’t have the means), but is trying to promote his work because she likes it and thinks more should know about it. And, from those two very different viewpoints, nothing approaching agreement is ever reached.
It’s definitely an interesting discussion, in that both sides mostly remain friendly throughout the debate. Brown starts off with a simple request to various users of some file sharing system to please stop sharing his works because it’s “totally not cool” with him. Thankfully, he doesn’t threaten anyone or break out any legalistic cease-and-desist type language. There is some back and forth at the beginning where the girl doesn’t believe that “THE” Jason Robert Brown is really emailing her, but then the conversation gets a bit more interesting. She starts out by asking him a simple question about why he’s spending so much time asking everyone to take down his scores:
I’d like to ask you a question. Why are you doing this? I just searched you on this site and all of the stuff that people have of yours up there say that it’s “Not for Trade Per Composer’s Request.” Did you think about the aspiring actors and actresses who really need some good sheet music? If you’re really who you claim to be, then I assume you know that Parade, Last Five Years, 13 The Musical, etc. are all genius pieces of work and that a lot of people who would love to have that sheet music can’t afford it. Thus the term “starving artist.” Performers really need quick and easy ways to attain good sheet music and you’re stopping a lot of people from getting what they need. It matters a great deal to them that they can get it for free. Why does it matter so much to you that they don’t?
Brown takes a while to actually get around to responding to the questions (there are some emails in between), but he finally says:
I should think the answer is obvious: I think it’s annoying and obnoxious that people think they’re entitled to get the sheet music to my songs for free, and I’d like to make those people (you, for example) conscious of the immorality, illegality, and unfairness of their behavior.
The teenager, Eleanor (sometimes referred to as Brenna, but that’s not worth discussing), points out that many artists have no real means of obtaining his works, but by being able to download the scores for free and use them, they’re making many more people aware of his works. She presents a hypothetical that describes the value of word of mouth marketing for those who might not be aware of his works, even highlighting how many of those people will likely end up making transactions that help his bottom line. He, not surprisingly, is not buying it:
That same scenario could take place exactly the same way if you paid for the music. And that’s how that scenario is SUPPOSED to take place. You assume that because a good thing comes from an illegal act, it’s therefore mitigated. That’s nonsense. I’m glad people want to sing my songs, and I’m glad that when other people hear them, they enjoy them — that doesn’t mean I surrender my right to get paid for providing the sheet music.
This is a point that is raised quite often, but misses the point, which Eleanor is quick to point out: that the scenario won’t happen, because many up-and-coming artists will simply shift to music from composers who do allow it to be traded for free:
You think the same scenario could have taken place exactly the same way? Funny. Most of the teenagers I have met who are into theatre would do the free song before they would do the one for $3.99 unless they had a really good reason. It could theoretically take place the same way. The question is would it? And the answer is probably not. I never said that it was an amazing thing happening and I never said that it doesn’t start with what I’m sure seems to you as a bad thing. I “assume that because a good thing comes from an illegal act, it’s therefore mitigated”? …. Yes. I assume that because something that good comes from something so insignificantly negative, it’s therefore mitigated.
Brown comes back with a few comments about how it’s not worth arguing with a teenager who thinks anyone who tries to correct her is “the enemy,” but then comes up with three “stories” of his own about why file sharing is wrong — even though none of them actually show that. Instead, there are two that are about borrowing a physical item, and one about fair use. What’s most amusing here, however, is that Brown seems to have no problem with the kind of fair use where you rip a CD, but doesn’t seem to think that Eleanor’s use of his music could possibly be fair use. Then he concludes with four paragraphs where he tries to convince her she’s wrong and tells her she should take his works out of the library instead:
Now you’re frustrated because even if you wanted to do the right thing, the ethical and legal thing, you still need a credit card to buy the sheet music and that isn’t going to happen. Listen, Eleanor, I’m frustrated on your behalf. It really sucks to be a teenager. I’m not being sarcastic or ironic, I really get it. I wrote a whole show about it. But being able to steal something doesn’t mean you should. If your parents really won’t pony up the four bucks to buy a copy of the sheet music, then you can ask them to take you to the library and you can take out all the music you want, free, and pick the song you want to use for an audition or a talent show, and you can keep borrowing the book from the library until you’re done with it or until the library demands it back. My song may not be in your library — you could ask them to get it from another library, through an interlibrary loan (this is common, standard library practice), but if you’re in a time crunch, that’s not practical — so you may have to just pick another song. It may not be the perfect song, but if you’re a talented girl, it won’t matter all that much. As long as it shows off what you can do and who you are, it will suffice because you are a teenager and the people who you are auditioning for will cut you slack on that account.
That’s the end of my jeremiad, and I’d be surprised if it persuaded you in any real way, but it is the truth and it is your responsibility as a citizen, as a member of the theatrical community, and as a considerate human being to pay attention to the laws, ethics and customs that make it possible for you to do the thing you love. I’m very much impressed by how passionately you’ve stood your ground, and how articulate you’ve been in doing so, and I can’t tell you how excited I am that you didn’t misspell anything, not once in this entire exchange. (Well, you wrote “you’re” when you meant “your” once, but I’ll let it go.) But being able to argue a point doesn’t make it right — lots of lawyers lose cases all the time.
I’m sorry if you still think I’m a jerk, but what I’m talking about here is not “insignificant.” The entire record business is in free-fall because people no longer feel the moral responsibility to buy music; they just download it for free from the Internet, from YouTube, from their friends. When I make a cast album or a CD of my own, I do it knowing that it will never earn its money back, that I’m essentially throwing that money away so that I can put those songs out in the world. That shouldn’t be the case, and I suspect in your heart you believe that too. All of us who write music for the theater are very much concerned that the sheet music business will eventually go the same way as the record business. I’m doing my little part to keep that from happening.
If you want me to talk to your parents and ask them to buy you the sheet music, just have them write me an email. You know how to find me.
Not surprisingly, I side more with Eleanor than with Brown in this debate, but I do think it’s a good thing that the two sides engaged in a civil discussion on this topic, and think it’s a bit unfortunate, as Brown notes in his “update” that he’s hearing from “hostile” men who are trying to “educate” him on this subject. I would bet, of course, that many of the people trying to educate Brown are not, actually, hostile at all, but I’m sure some of them certainly are. And it’s unfortunate, then, that he automatically lumps all such responses into the “hostile” camp.
The simple fact of the matter is that Brown is, in fact, wrong on many of his key points, though it’s not surprising that he is. For example, his claims that “the entire record business is in free-fall because people no longer feel the moral responsibility to buy music,” is quite an incorrect statement. First of all, since when has there ever been a “moral responsibility to buy music?” There hasn’t been. And, of course, while certain major record labels may see their business in free-fall, the actual music business is doing incredibly well — in fact, it’s having quite a renaissance in terms of the number of albums released, and the amount of overall money that people are spending on it. It’s just that they’re not spending it on recordings (or sheet music) directly.
That said, Brown has made his living this way for a while, so you can see why he’d be upset that the old way of making money has been disappearing, but I doubt that a significant portion of his earnings came from teenage girls buying his sheet music in order to perform it at talent shows. In fact, since most of his work is for the theater, there are numerous business models available to him that have little, if nothing, to do with direct recordings, and for which file sharing — like the kind Eleanor cites — could help attract more revenue if he’d learn to adapt, rather than demand that the rest of the world adapt to him.
In the end, though, Brown did not go legalistic (even if he did go moralistic) and seemed at least willing to engage with Eleanor. I doubt he’s going to change his mind any time soon, but we’ve seen a lot worse and a lot more obnoxious from folks who were a lot less informed. Brown strikes me as the kind of guy who, if actually given more evidence on this subject might actually come around to recognizing that, perhaps, it was he who made the wrong assumptions, rather than Eleanor, even if it might take quite some time before he realizes this.