Has the music business escaped the denial phase?

Fascinating evidence – in a paid-for supplement to this week’s New Statesman – that the record business has reached the acceptance stage of the grieving process. The Smith Institute, which is the Think Tank set up in John Smith’s memory, set up a round table for the industry to discuss ‘Copyright reform: bridging a gap between music and technology‘.

And a strangely hermetic event it was too: lots of intelligent and influential people and every one of them from the business (a couple of friendly outsiders are permitted). The result is unexpectedly radical (especially given the total absence of genuine copyright reformers). Speaker after speaker essentially accepts as orthodoxy that the era during which it was possible to defend rights in a recording is now finished.

The industry’s response is something called the Value Recognition Right (VRR), an intriguing attempt, if I understand it properly, to legitimise digital intermediaries like ISPs and P2P networks by creating a new class of contractual relationship that recognises the value of the assets carried over their systems. The most interesting thing about the debate, though, is the obvious ambivalence of the industry to the new measure.

Even while Emma Pike, Chief executive of British Music Rights, is busy giving the VRR its first public outing, others around the table are just as busy urging the industry to adjust to the impossibility of defending the value in a recording at all. Pike’s VRR extends the scope of existing copyright law and seeks new sanctions against ‘secondary copyright violators’ (the P2P toolmakers and networks, presumably). The music business seems ready to acknowledge that it can do no more than delay the inevitable.

Adam Singer, who used to run cable programme maker Flextech (now part of NTL), and who now runs The MCPS-PRS Alliance, makes it explicit:

“The conversation has to follow two lines. The first question is: “How do we use copyright now to buy ourselves some time?” The second is: “How do we use copyright in a world where recordings no longer have any value?””

If the music business really is finally ready to adjust to the boundaryless, post-scarcity world of digital music, then maybe it’s time for the rest of us – thieves and scumbags all – to return the favour by more generously acknowledging the value created by artists and their labels. Let the great reconciliation begin.

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