Neil Young is right — piracy is the new radio

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As an artist who probably makes a substantial income from licensing his music, you might think Neil Young would frown on piracy and file-sharing, but that appears not to be the case, according to an interview he gave at the Dive Into Media conference in Los Angeles. Instead of railing against file-sharers, Young called piracy “the new radio” because it’s “how music gets around.” The musician’s comment puts a lot of the hysteria about copyright infringement into perspective — as we’ve pointed out before, file-sharing and monetization aren’t mutually exclusive, and in many cases a certain amount of so-called “piracy” can actually be good for business, as authors, musicians and even game developers have come to realize.

Comparing piracy to radio is a smart way of looking at the issue: in the early days of the music business, when live performances and record sales were the main revenue generator for artists and publishers, radio itself was seen as a form of piracy (as sheet music was before that). Musicians fulminated about radio stations playing their music for free, and some record labels made their acts sign waivers saying they would not appear on the radio. In the end, of course, radio became a huge revenue driver for music — although it did so in part because record labels and publishers pushed for licensing fees.

Radio was seen as piracy too, but became a publicity engine

But more than just being a source of fees, radio was also a huge publicity engine for music, and eventually this became so obvious that at one point record labels were giving radio stations and disc jockeys “payola” under the table to promote their music. And now we have come full circle with Neil Young’s comment:

I look at the internet as the new radio. I look at the radio as gone. […] Piracy is the new radio. That’s how music gets around.

This idea of piracy as being “how content gets around” doesn’t just apply to music either. In a videotaped comment last year about piracy, British author Neil Gaiman — who I interviewed recently about his opposition to the proposed federal anti-piracy bills SOPA and PIPA — said that he used to be irate about people pirating his work, but eventually came to realize that he was actually selling more copies of his physical books in those countries where piracy was the highest. Brazilian author Paulo Coelho found the same thing, and actually started uploading his own work to files-sharing sites without telling his publisher.

Some game developers — the digital-era equivalent of songwriters and authors, in many ways — have also come to see piracy as being a necessary evil, and in many cases a positive force. Markus Persson, the Swedish developer of the massively popular game Minecraft, has said that he came to see piracy of his game as a form of marketing. And at a recent music-industry conference in Europe, the CEO of superstar game company Rovio (creator of Angry Birds) said that piracy “may not be a bad thing” because it increases demand for the official version of the company’s products.

If you make it easy to get and pay for, piracy isn’t an issue

Even Microsoft CEO Bill Gates has been known to see the virtues of a little piracy, especially in developing markets like China. The Microsoft founder reportedly said of that market: “As long as they’re going to steal it, we want them to steal ours. They’ll get sort of addicted, and then we’ll somehow figure out how to collect sometime in the next decade.” Gates clearly saw pirating as a kind of loss leader, creating eventual market demand.

We’ve described before how one of the reasons why users engage in copyright infringement is that distributors make it too cumbersome to get the official version of whatever the content is, as venture capitalist Fred Wilson complained in a recent post, admitting that he pirated a livestream of a basketball game. But the example of comedian Louis CK — who allowed anyone to download his comedy special for just $5 with no copyright protection, and made over $1 million in less than a week — shows that there is still room for creators to monetize their content, if they make it as easy as possible.

As Andrew Weissman of Union Square Ventures noted in a recent post, information wants to be free — not necessarily free meaning it costs nothing, but free in the sense of being friction-free to access. And if you don’t make it easy for your music or writing or other content to “get around,” as Neil Young puts it, then piracy will take care of that for you.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Flickr user Paul Sapiano

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