Suggesting taxes in March makes Americans nervous — who knew? Photo: romanlily. Wait … crap. It’s almost April, isn’t it?

It seems Warner exec Jim Griffin was unprepared for the rancor of the Interwebs, because he’s backpedaling on a proposal to create a blanket fee for ISPs on music. All of that was just part of a “dynamic conversation,” says Griffin in a statement, and “It would be unfortunate if a creative and fruitful dialogue were sidetracked by a rush to judgment about what was simply my own illustrative example of one of many concepts I have in this space.”

Yes, indeed — it’d be unfortunate if a discussion of a hair-brained scheme with no plan for implementation or investment from any of the stakeholders were derailed by the fact that it was a hair-brained scheme with no plan for implementation or investment from any of the stakeholders.

See some excellent coverage and analysis from CNet’s Greg Sandoval.

And as Sandoval notes, “What happens is that people hear the word “tax” and objective analysis goes out the window. People condemn and vilify. Out comes the torches and pitchforks.” That lack of objectivity is what frustrated me yesterday, even without being a specialist on the legal details

Of course, I disagree with Griffin about what happens to the “dynamic conversation” when people bring out the pitchforks. He says people lose the opportunity to “consider a variety of raw concepts without prejudice.” I say they lose the opportunity to consider just how out of touch with reality his proposal is.

Music attorney Chris Castle is far more qualified than I am to make such arguments:

Warner Music’s tune of folly 

He points out some of what I did — plus more problems I didn’t. (Hey, there are so many holes in this proposal, it’s impossible to cover them all.)

  • The proposal doesn’t calculate what people are listening to
  • The plan only covers Warner Brothers
  • The plan promises billions to creative people without determining how to split it up or subtracting the cost of implementation
  • The plan would require amending the US Copyright Act
  • … and that could violate international treaties
  • … and it’s a plan for the US while the Web is international
  • … and the French defeated a similar plan
  • … and ISPs won’t like it
  • … and P2P services being targeted won’t cooperate
  • … and consumer’s don’t like it

Yeah, I only got part of that list before.

Aside from that, this is a great idea! I think. Actually, I’ve forgotten what the original pros were supposed to be. We’re all free to pirate music for a small fee that violates international law? Uh … great?

Here’s my problem with the pitchforks and rioting response from bloggers: the fear and panic suggests this is something that might happen, when it’s clear governments, lawyers, copyright holders, ISPs, P2P services, music consumers, Internet users, Internet rights advocates, and even other labels are likely to be against it. It’s like people held up a “Don’t tread on me” banner when they should have held up a “Ground control to Major Tom, we’ve got no idea what the *(&$# you’re talking about.” sign.

And that brings up a fundamental question I have:

Just what is it about the Internet that makes it suddenly necessary to have to “consider a variety of raw concepts without prejudice.” I mean, maybe I’m caught in the Old World models here, but couldn’t we try talking about things that aren’t wildly impractical, illegal, and counter to the interests of everyone involved?

Oh, well. Back to talking about music technology on this site. And, hey, if the blog torches and pitchforks helped give a reality check to an out-of-touch exec, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Have a great weekend. See you Monday with odd sound-making boxes.

  • Darren Landrum

    Nice write-up, Peter! I don't really have any comment, but I thought I'd drop a few links to an odd sound-making thing. 🙂

    Homemade alcohol flame-based triode: (be sure to check out the video)

    I want to build one and sample it. 🙂

  • Nice.

    Actually, I think that is connected. Here is ** sound created by dropping salt water on aluminum ** . Everyone else is trying to panicking about the supposed death of the value of music. Quite the contrary — I think music and sound is pretty unbelievable in its ability to be valuable and meaningful in never-ending ways. (not quite music there, but you can bet some clever composer / performer could make it into music)

  • Darren Landrum

    Cool! You found that one. Again, I want to sample it. I would probably scan around for point I could take very short and loopable samples. But first, I need to build some of these contraptions and set up a way to record their outputs. It probably won't be too hard.

  • Darren Landrum

    Oh, crap! I just realized I linked to the wrong thing! THIS is what I meant to point you to in the first place:

    Be sure to check the video. The aluminum thing is pretty cool, too. Damned paste buffer.

  • Hey! I love this idea of this law! It means I can crank out any old piece of noise garbage – call it music – and get a slice of that tasty Intertubes Tax! Set me up for life! =D

    Jokes aside, very good coverage, Mr Kirn. It is sad when people decide to ignore the patently obvious and instead just get loud and outraged.

  • @Ben — ha! That illustrates why you have to have *some* kind of usage sampling. Otherwise, you could in fact copyright a tune you made with your aluminum and water, and you'd be entitled to the same amount of income from the flat fee as someone with a hit single. It's not clear how you'd sample, how you'd translate that sample, how you'd get cooperation from P2P networks or streams (especially if now everything is legal), or who would be involved (since this was about Warner). Surreal.

    @Darren — excellent; that link is also very nice. 🙂

  • Look, just because you Americans get suspicious everytime someone comes ahead with a plan that might imply just a little bit of State intervention, it doesn't mean we're talking about a tax. It's a voluntary license to freely download all the music in the world without having to worry about the possibility of being prosecuted. At the same time, the user has the assurance that he is compensating the artists.

    Regarding the distribution of the money collected from the users, instead of monitoring how many times a song or an album from a given artist is being downloaded one could count how many times the tracks are played in iTunes, WinAmp and other desktop music players. Professor William Fischer's Noank Media ( has been trying to implement this model in several Chinese universities and colleges.

  • Miguel, a voluntary tracking method combined with a voluntary payment model sounds relatively reasonable … and, in fact, more scientific than even current licensing use models typically are.

    But the problem is this particularly plan is not entirely voluntary.

    And it's not State intervention — quite the contrary; Warner said they would implement the plan and specifically wanted no State involvement, which I think is cause for concern.

    And it's not really likely to be legal, either, not without radically amending international copyright law.

    Oh, and "us Americans" I think is a dubious category to consider as monolithic. In case you hadn't noticed, we tend not to disagree on many matters of policy.

  • Peter,

    well, it seems to me that until now Griffin hasn't been very explicit about the voluntary/compulsory nature of his plan. This discussion started a few weeks ago when he did a presentation on SXSW. Only after that did Warner approached Griffin. After all, it's totally implausible to reach a solution like this one with no intervention from the Government. And if this means copyright law must be changed, well, I think then it's just a matter of reaching some sort of consensus between ISPs, performers, composers, labels and collective rights societies. It's no unsurmountable obstacle.

    You have to remember that in 2006 the French were very close of approving a blanket licence. Unfortunately, it didn't pass in the Senate.

  • He may not have been specific about whether it's compulsory (although, if it's not compulsory, then isn't it just a "tip jar", the thing he criticizes — a non-specific tip jar, at that?)

    And as for government intervention, Griffin says in the interview: "I assure you, we have no such interest in government running this or having any part of it."

    I think being explicit about what you're planning is important. Otherwise you say "hey, I've got a great idea — let's have a magical system where we just get cash to the right people but it feels free" and then duck when anyone pushes you for specifics. Griffin seems to be making a nice living for himself pushing radical ideas without the details to back them up, or any apparent interest in seeing that the stakeholders feel its in their best interests, which is part of why the French deal broke down.

  • although, if it’s not compulsory, then isn’t it just a “tip jar”, the thing he criticizes — a non-specific tip jar, at that?

    Yeah, it's a tip jar. But who wouldn't want to have access to all the music recorded in the world in exchange of a small fee and without having to feel guilty or without risking a lawsuit? OK, people can download Terabytes of MP3 in a month and then cut their subscriptions all of a sudden but you can embedd digital watermarks into the files just to increase the psychological barrier against that in a way that doesn't compromise too much user's privacy.

    Anyway, I think Griffin said that he wasn't planning on calling the Government just to dismiss irrational fears coming from Silicon Valley who get shivers anytime they hear the word "tax" 😉

  • dead_red_eyes

    "Look, just because you Americans…"

    *Rolls eyes*

  • MonksDream

    Miguel – I don't follow your logic.

    Griffin criticizes the "tip jar" approach and then sets up a "tip jar".

    Somehow this is supposed to provide "access to all the music recorded in the world in exchange for a small fee". How? considering the extremely limited scope of the plan in terms of content sources, countries etc.?

    Despite the best efforts of the RIAA and its PR firms it's clear most people downloading MP3s don't "feel guilty" and "digital watermarks as a psychological barrier" sounds like more of the same tactic. You use a watermark to identify something. You identify something so you can control its use or distribution. That sounds like DRM to me, and DRM is what this whole idea seeks to avoid, isn't it?

    Lastly, Griffin says he doesn't want the government to have any part of this. You claim that it's "implausible" not to have government intervention and that Griffin only says that to re-assure Silicon Valley. So is Griffin lying? and why?

  • Mr. Tunes

    there was a lot of discussion about this during canadian music week. at first i thought it was crazy but as i've thought about it more, i feel it would be interesting to see how this plays out.

    i'm not saying i support it, but i do wonder – if the broadband ISPs shut down tomorrow, don't you think we would see a massive rise in CD sales again(or albums on USB keys)?

  • MonksDream

    @Mr. Tunes

    No. I think we'd see a sharp spike in CD/DVD/USB "trading"!

    The key word in your question is "sales". The question presumes that every illegal download, or a healthy proportion of them, represents a lost sale.

    What about those who only download because there's no/low cost? It seems more likely that they would just forego some music rather than increase their spending. Another situation that wouldn't increase CD sales is those who already bought the CD and download illegal versions so they don't have to deal with the DRM. Not having a non-DRM version might actually bring the CD sales down.

    The industry often uses the same presumption as the basis for its estimated loss of revenue figures from downloading, However, there is no way of determining if the presumption is accurate. So any conclusions about economic impact based on it are, at best, inaccurate and, at worst, total fantasy.

  • MonksDream

    My apologies for the misplaced italics in my previous post.

  • Mr. Tunes

    all i can say to that is i remember the time just before downloading was big – we'd swap the odd CD-R but on the whole it wasn't convenient cause we had to meet face-to-face to do that. sometimes the swaps could be arranged by email and then done in the post which i remember with jamband live show trading.

    these days some of our friends with the closest musical tastes dont even live in the same city as us since all these networks popped up.

    so i'm going to stick by my point above on that: if the high speed interweb shut down tomorrow people would go out and buy more CDs than before.

    and i do agree with you that there are people who will just forego music in the absence of options, but we have yet to see how people would actually deal with the plug being pulled on p2p sharing before we can decide what the pawn's next move is

  • Mr. Tunes

    oh and i'd be curious to hear from many of the people who were on a popular music torrent site and how they've been dealing with finding new music since it was shut down. cause those people were diehards music lovers. they'd make for a great case study.