Once upon a time people bought their music on big plastic discs. Then it was little brown tape that looked and felt like cheap bunting. Then it was small plastic discs.
And then: nothing at all. Music started to fly through the air, or whizz along cables, and settle itself (without occupying any physical space whatever) somewhere in a little box of microprocessors on your desk or in your pocket. And with it came pictures, messages, and little electronic instructions too numerous to fathom and too complicated to understand.
But throughout all this, people understood – more or less – where they stood in relation to the musician (or the record label). They bought a product which enabled them to listen to this music, play it to their friends, put it on in the background if they had a party, and so on. Showing and telling was always a part of the experience.
But there were limits. They weren’t allowed to copy it, or re-sell it, or play it in public. They weren’t supposed to lend it to their friends to be copied, either, but it happened.
Everyone knew about copyright, but now it’s all changed.
In theory, the position has not altered. Someone creates something, they own the rights in it, they can choose to sell or license their rights, and people who make improper use of the created work are infringing those rights. In theory.
But the social media phenomenon has simply made mincemeat of the theory.
Track back for a moment to the “old” days of borrowing someone’s CD and copying it, or photocopying an article, or taping a film from the TV. It wasn’t meant to happen, but it was an acknowledged fact; media producers factored it in when they set prices and very few individuals were ever sued or prosecuted for breach of a virtually unenforceable law.
Then came social media – fiercely devouring whatever creatives have to offer faster than they can produce it.
The distribution of rights-protected content – images, text, music, design, code, photographs – is escaping the control of the rights owners. No longer the exclusive province of the big corporations, it is increasingly driven by millions of individuals, developing their interests through social media channels, spreading and sharing the stuff that they are interested in. Just as they might lend a book or a CD – but now they can “lend” to dozens, hundreds, thousands or hundreds of thousands at a time. And people think no more of sharing a video of a new song than they do of sharing home footage from their own barbecue.
Now businesses are doing it too. Perhaps they don’t share other people’s work, but they surely share their own, freely, via personal and professional networking sites. And it certainly doesn’t help to clarify what’s allowed, when so much digital content is pumped into the cloud, officially, deliberately in order to be shared. Formal assignments, licences, attributions – they are hardly considered.
All this has profound implications for traditional media businesses. There’s an unstoppable force; huge corporations risk becoming little more than megaliths if they don’t embrace it before it breaks down their doors. And that has meant cultural change – not simply changing the rules, but actually facilitating the very things that they fought against for decades.
This is why the arrangements between YouTube and the music industry, that secure a flow of revenue back to source, are so important. It will mean that people can carry on sharing, and the efforts of the creatives are rewarded in a new way. And it’s why it’s just as important that Facebook, we hear, is seeking to make similar deals.
So, are the social media giants muscling in and calling the shots of the media businesses? And if so, isn’t that bad? Well, no and no. Those same giants have themselves to be every bit as fleet of foot as the rest; if they don’t follow what people are actually doing, they will sink almost as fast as they grew. Remember Friends Reunited?
It is users who make the running. Users have been voting with their mice and their handsets and have decreed that – for the time being at least – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp and others will be how they “show and tell”. And so they’ve torn up the rulebook for managing IP rights.
And no one’s yet written a new one.