Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Beck, Record Labels, DRM and Copyright

You don't have to be Harold Innis or Marshall McLuhan to recognize that digital media are impacting on both society and art. One artist on the front lines is Beck, who is exploiting new digital technologies by creating continuously evolving versions of his work. Guero, his latest album, is already on its fourth official version, in addition to countless fan mash-ups.

In a fascinating interview in the latest issue of Wired, Beck expands on his artistic approach, as well as providing this insightful tidbit on the changing role of record labels:
Record labels definitely aren't going to go away, but it'll be really interesting to see how their role changes. Some of the guys in my band recently started a side band just for fun. At their first show, kind of as a joke, they told everyone to check out their MySpace page – which they hadn't even set up yet. As soon as they got offstage they signed up for an account and put some live recordings online. A couple of days later, they checked back, and a bunch of people had visited and heard their music. Obviously, this was all without a label – without even an album out. It kind of blew my mind.

Beck's comments are particularly apropos given recording industry attempts to lock up their content, even to the extent of preventing fair use copying by their customers, let alone the creative transformations of the material by artists experimenting with the new media. With new copyright legislation expected in the coming months, the Harper government will need to be vigilant to ensure they do not inadvertently close off new forms of creative expression that new technologies unleash.

In my view, it would be an absolute disaster to enshrine DRM protections in the new legislation, as has been requested by the recording and motion picture industries. Of course, creators (and their surrogates) deserve to be paid, but the rights of users must also be respected. Moreover, society benefits greatly from the spread of ideas and knowledge.

Let's hope the policy makers come up with some creative approaches that encourage both the development of new ideas and their widespread dissemination to the public. When knowledge is power, the worst thing we can do is ration it. The ball is now in Bev Oda's court.

Note: Michael Geist provides an excellent overview of the key issues behind DRM and copyright reform in Canada in his ongoing series 30 Days of DRM, It is definitely worth checking out.