Lily Allen: Copyright Twit of the Week

Lily Allen recently became the focus of anti-copyright movement ire when she set herself up as a music industry spokesperson against online file-sharing, and declared her support for Lord Mandelson’s proposal to cut off ISP service to repeated offenders.

What passed for pro-copyright arguments at her It’s Not Alright [sic] blog were bad enough:  lots of confused analogies (typical of copyright defenders) between stealing tangible property and “stealing” (i.e. reproducing) copyrighted information (“Bread is free, too, if you shoplift it.”).  Also arguments, typical of copyright defenders, that it’s impossible to compete with free, that production costs can’t be recouped when the marginal cost of reproduction is zero, etc. — indicating that she’s completely innocent of any knowledge of alternative business models that can be and are being used as an alternative to copyright.

As Chris Anderson has shown, making raw content available for free only eliminates the rents from ownership of “intellectual property” as such.  There are still all sorts of first-mover competitive advantages to being the original creator of the content.  For example:  finding a good, authentic copy of a song via a file-sharing network — a complete, faithful reproduction — can be a very time-consuming activity.  For most people of average means, paying a modest price (say a dollar or two) for certified authenticity at a creator’s official website is a pretty attractive time-money tradeoff.  And buying a physical copy of the CD for a few bucks, without the enormous price markup from copyright-ownership, is a pretty good deal in return for getting an authentic set of liner notes and guaranteed quality.  Even when rents from copyright as such disappear, there are significant rents entailed in the transaction costs of setting up a competing web-hosting and sales infrastructure.  There’s also significant money to be earned through auxiliary services.  The modest fees obtainable for from first-mover rents and auxiliary services, in most cases, are probably enough to recoup the artist’s labor and that of assorted sound techs and other contributors — and not sufficient to make it worth the trouble of undercutting their price.  It’s only when they get greedy, by charging the kinds of bloated prices that copyright used to enable, that they become an attractive target for “pirates.”

But unfortunately forAllen, her problems didn’t end with ignorance and incoherence; one of the posts at her blog got her some attention of a kind she hadn’t bargained for.  Her post “50 Cent” was a direct, unattributed block quote from an article by Michael Masnick at Techdirt.

When Masnick pointed out the irony in a subsequent post, Allen responded with a post of her own:  “I THINK ITS QUITE OVIOUS THAT I WASNT TRYING TO PASS OF THOSE WORDS AS MY OWN , HERE IS A LINK TO THE WEBSIITE I ACQUIRED THE PIECE FROM.”

Actually, it was by no means obvious.  The paragraph from Techdirt wasn’t indented, or in inverted commas, or in any other way set off from the rest of her post, and there was no reference or link to the original.   A discerning reader might have recognized it as foreign matter, I suppose, if only because it was the only part of the post that didn’t look to have been written by Vicky Pollard or Jade Goody.

In any case, once readers’ attention was drawn to the issue, it wasn’t long before people dug out all sorts of other examples.  Cory Doctorow sums it up:

“Lily Allen’s anti-piracy rant has made her notorious among copyfighters, who have subjected her site and her words to close scrutiny, discovering that Allen’s website is chock-a-block with infringing scans of newspaper articles, infringing mix-tapes (even the rant she posted was lifted from Techdirt).”

The new revelations provoked another response from Allen:  “i made those mixtapes 5 years ago, i didn’t have a knowledge of the workings of the music industry back then…”

Apparently Allen found herself in over her head, because she took down her entire blog shortly afterward.  Unfortunately for her, as the saying goes, getting something off the Internet is like getting a drop of ink out of a swimming pool.  I just subbed to the blog’s feed at Google Reader, and I’ve got access to the entire archives.  You can run, but you can’t hide.

Both Masnick and Doctorow pointed out just how lame Allen’s defenses were.  Whether she understood the law is beside the point.  The fact that copyright law is admittedly convoluted and hard to understand just means that, as Doctorow puts it, “everyone is in a constant state of infringement.”  BFD.  From the standpoint of the copyright predators in the proprietary content industries, that just means a bigger herd to feed on.  And as Masnick pointed out, whether she knew it or not, Allen was infringing — and the Lily Allen of five years ago was fully liable to prosecution under the laws that the Lily Allen of today so enthusiastically supports.

It’s also beside the point whether it was obvious to a reader that the material she reproduced without permission was someone else’s work.  Gawd, that sounds almost like… like… FAIR USE!   But as every good little boy and girl who’s been to “anti-songlifting” class knows, IF YOU  DIDN’T PAY FOR IT, YOU STOLE IT.  Period.

On behalf of the free culture movement, I make a heartfelt plea to the Copyright Nazis of the RIAA:  Send more copyright defenders like Lily Allen, please.  All we have to do is stand back and let her do our work for us.

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