Sony BMG have moved to sell some of their music catalog as digital files without digital rights management (DRM) restrictions. The notable change here is that there are now no major record labels who don't sell unrestricted MP3 music direct to customers.
Such a situation was unthinkable at the beginning of last year, when DRM was still heralded as the protection layer all content would need to guard against piracy. DRM restricts what devices users can view their purchased content on, what country the files may work in, and other such techniques used in combination to determine that the relationship between the instance of the file and the user is legit. Of course, this doesn't effect pirated files - which are DRM-free by necessity.
But technology is legislation and many viewed DRM as an attack on their rights. The music industry's adventures and the emerging solutions set precedents for the way information and intellectual property will exist in the future. I believe the challenges and opportunities present can be managed in a way that brings forth a culture of collaboration, freedom and generosity as well as profit and economic growth - and the DRM-free legal availability of digital music files is a tangible step towards the adoption such of a viable new information market.
By failing to offer a legal place to download unrestricted files, could Sony be partly responsible for users learning the ways of online piracy? Were potential sales of digital files neglected in favor of seemingly ineffective protection? It's quite possible, but it doesn't look like something we have to worry about any more - at least when it comes to digital music files.
That may seem premature, but it's not too early to draw conclusions in this saga, or too early to decide on how you'll act in response. The wonderful coincidence for me was that I heard of this news directly after watching Steal this Film Part 2, a freely available 45 minute video documentary on current events in the ever-expanding global file-sharing scene. Steal This Film largely presents the music industry as a dying monster, making their apparent slow demise painful for their friends and family. But industry-wide movements like the abandonment of DRM paint a different picture.
As the recording industry is finally understanding, file sharing will no doubt be recorded as one of the defining social changes of the early century. Steal This Film Part 2 is about how it started, what's happening now, and what's likely to happen next. The case is made that file sharing and its associated copyright infringement are not about to go away - no huge surprises there.
Part 1 of Steal this Film focussed tightly on detailing the dubious take-down (and quick return) of the Pirate Bay, a defiant Swedish bit-torrent tracking site associated with massive copyright infringement. It felt amateur and underground, easy to dismiss for lacking authority despite its staggering and obvious results.
Copyright infringement is, of course, illegal, and the subject of heated legal action and revision - meaning it's a great time for a good documentary. The film's creators, the League of Noble Peers, clearly got the attention they sought from Part 1: Part 2 is loaded with experts and addresses everything that threatened the original installment's chance of being taken seriously. This time around the film includes smart talking heads from a variety of relevant sources - with representatives from Google to Mininova and the Pirate Bay, the MPAA, EFF and the Internet Archive among others.
The production values of the piece are outstanding and, coupled with the experts and plenty of stock footage, present a slick feature that's hard to rebuke.
The focus remains historical - and concentrates almost solely on entertainment media. This is a common thought-trap in discussing the opportunities presented by the internet and the treatment of information in the digital age - while the principals of freedom and open access invoke feelings of responsibility and justice, using those freedom-granting technologies solely for leisure seems like a missed opportunity. Steal This Film Part 2 does include a generous section on participatory culture and the case for hope, but the citizen media examples are wanting and the vision leaves current systems and visible alternatives out. It occurs to me that there's opportunity for enormous financial turnover in a creative scene with a larger number of participants.
Could it be that the biggest audience for today's feature films will be the distributed global masses of 2015, downloading them legally and for cheap? Maybe, but that's not the point. More importantly, by 2015 the tools for citizen media and digital distribution will have another seven years of development, and that's an exciting thought on it own.
It's heartening to think that recording labels are beginning to play their part in allowing such a thriving media culture to emerge. If they lower their prices, increase access and act like every other producer, they might find themselves popular again.