Futurist Says: Lose Control, Loosen Licensing

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The following is a review of The End of Control, recently published by Gerd Leonhard.

In the late 90s, the music industry found itself at the beginning of a massively disruptive transition.  In the early stages, most traditional players downplayed the shift, especially following the high-profile, legal defeat of Napster.  But a number of observers started to question the viability of discretely packaged and distributed goods like CDs. Digital assets like paid downloads were also regarded with suspicion.

The reason is that one-off, aggressively-priced media assets offered a strong contrast to open, mostly uncontrollable digital distribution channels.  A relatively quick surge in P2P-based file-swapping – and a concomitant slide in disc sales – have now pushed those voices closer to the center, and forced an overhaul in the way companies discover, create, and distribute their content.

Among the more forward-leaning voices of the past few years has been Gerd Leonhard, a once-radical commentator whose views are starting to resonate more broadly.  Leonhard – an entrepreneur and self-described “futurist” – has urged a shift towards a more free-flowing model of music distribution and consumption.

Instead of discrete, one-off purchases, Leonhard – along with coauthor Dave Kuseck – initially advocated a distribution model that likened music to water in the book, The Future of Music (2005).  Always available in large quantities, but paid for in a mostly unobtrusive manner, the “music like water” approach was mostly viewed as heresy by more traditional media executives.

But Leonhard and Kuseck were not isolated voices – labels have been roundly criticized for not monetizing Napster, and locking music within protected, expensive chambers.  Meanwhile, consumers have mostly moved around these walls, and embraced mechanisms like Limewire for acquiring and discovering their tunes.

In his latest work, The End of Control, Leonhard echoes some of his earlier sentiments, and further underscores the importance of freely-available, feels-like-free music channels.  According to Leonhard, scarcity is no longer something content owners can bank on, and media companies should move away from controlled distribution models.  “Publishers can no longer create more demand by injecting artificial scarcity — in other words, by attempting to control distribution,” Leonhard asserts.

Major media companies have mostly resisted open licensing schemes.  But Leonhard sharply disagrees with that approach, mainly because it excludes consumers from accessing the content – or simply encourages them to find it elsewhere.  And that wider loss of control extends beyond distribution – it often involves modifications and reuses of the content itself.  “The reality is that the only real choice content creators and publishers have in this coming digital media ecosystem is to participate, themselves, or to ‘be participated’ — once your content is published, that’s what it will come down to,” the author asserts.

The book is well-timed.  Major labels are starting to loosen restrictions on digital downloads, though more importantly, they are also starting to consider more feels-like-free concepts.  But music fans are mostly discovering, acquiring and accessing music on their terms, and floating outside of paid channels, and the trend is intensifying.

According to Leonhard, that non-participation offers no potential for revenue generation, and disengagement is a dangerous result.  “We, as the newly recognized and seemingly omnipotent users, are worth a lot more as active users than we are as inactive bystanders, to any and all players in this ecosystem,” Leonhard asserts.  The author also notes that more liberalized access spells greater usage and discovery, a shift that awakens deeper, Long Tail content.  In the presence of a seemingly-benign and mostly invisible payment system, the result is a monetized mass.

In fact, Leonhard regards traditional copyright law as a relic of a pre-digital society, and a time when total control of copyright was actually feasible.  “Either the commercial entities that, for now, still represent the creators move on quickly and issue voluntary collective licenses for these uses … or almost every web user is bound to become a copyright infringer before long,” Leonhard contends.  “And that sounds like a perfect case for government intervention to me – something that is very likely to happen here in Europe.”

Beyond government-level changes, Leonhard also advocates a less restrictive approach as a way to encourage premium purchases.  “Packaged media isn’t off the table; it’s just not the first course anymore. If you don’t offer some free — or rather, feels like free — starters, they’ll eat elsewhere,” Leonhard asserts.

Leonhard has plenty of other philosophies to share, though the complete book has not yet been published.  In fact, the book itself is free, though Leonhard is only releasing chapters piecemeal, week-by-week.  And given a number of very timely references within the book, The End of Control might literally be a work in progress.

Review by Paul Resnikoff, editor.