Copyright in an Era of Free Copies

Burkart and McCourt’s reading analyzes the legal case of A&M Records et al v Napster from 1999, also revealing the ultimate goal of the “Big Five” record labels (EMI, Universal, Sony, Time Warner, BMG): to control distribution.

Oligopoly isn’t just a funny-sounding word, it also represents a dangerous reality in any business-consumer marketplace, and like monopolies, should be avoided to provided the best conditions for the consumer.

Steinmetz and Tunnell’s article describes a study of “digital pirates” and their motivations.  Motivations were found to include their want to distribute content, to be able to sample music before making a purchase, to access content they would normally be unable to afford, as well as to avoid copyright laws.

One possible solution to the dilemma of music piracy is the concept of “Street Performer Protocol”, introduced by John Kelsey and Bruce Schneider.  This idea essentially collects “donations in escrow, to be released to an author in the event that the promised work be put in the public domain.”  This means artists will be able to say “if fans can put together $XXX, then I will release a new album”.  Once that album is released, it can be freely distributed.  If the fundraising goal is not reached (or the artist subsequently fails to produce the promised creative work), the money is returned to the users. This scheme ensures that artists are rewarded for their efforts, but also eliminates the need to control the distribution process through copyright enforcement. Interestingly, Kelsey and Schneider’s proposal was made in an academic paper in 1998, but a similar idea has recently seen widespread adoption, with the popularity of Kickstarter, IndieGogo, and similar “crowd-sourced” fundraising sites.

Kelsey and Schneider also discuss why copyright enforcement will be so difficult in the future.  Advances in technology have allowed information to be copied and shared efficiently and at very little cost.  This, combined with advances in encryption software and storage technology eliminates the previous dependence on larger, expensive and noticeable piracy factories.



Kelsey, K., Schneier, B. (1998). Electronic Commerce and the Street Performer Protocol. The Third USENIX Workshop on Electronic Commerce Proceedings

McCourt, T., P. Burkart. (2003). When Creators, Corporations and Consumers Collide: Napster and the Development of On-line Music DistributionMedia, Culture & Society. 25 (3), pg. 333-350

Steinmetz, K., K. Tunnell (2013). Under the Pixelated Jolly Roger: A Study of On-Line Pirates. Deviant Behavior. 34 (1), pg. 53-67


2 thoughts on “Copyright in an Era of Free Copies

  1. I must admit I’ve never heard of the street performer protocol. Sounds interesting, but would this leave a common group with the burden to donate enough money while others consistently wait for the free version? Or will artists continue to raise their “bottom line” for new songs in order to make more money? Perhaps it would result in better products as people would only donate for new songs if the previous one was good. Poor quality would require artists to lower their new price to win back the fans.

    This sounds like the point made by Steinmetz and Tunnell in your post – they state a reason for piracy is to allow consumers a chance to sample the product. With street performer protocol, how would the consumer know what they are donating money for? How would they get their “sample”?


  2. Pingback: Drink up me ‘earties! | mandapants831

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s