Is a music “tax” paid to ISPs the answer?

This is a big issue, with lots of sides to it, and I’m not going to try and get into them all right now, but it’s worth noting that Warner Music — the label run by Edgar Bronfman Jr. (who blew a few billion dollars worth of his family’s booze money on an ill-fated merger with Vivendi way back when) — has hired music-industry veteran Jim Griffin to create an ambitious, and possibly wrongheaded, digital music licensing entity that would see consumers pay their Internet service providers a monthly fee in return for the right to access music online.

Griffin outlines the idea a little in an interview with Portfolio magazine, and notes that it isn’t his idea but has been around a long time — it’s known as a “compulsory license,” and it was what helped the radio industry get out of the trouble it was in when it first became popular as an entertainment medium. Record labels argued that if people could listen to whatever they wanted for free on the radio, no one would buy albums and go to live shows. Sound familiar? Of course, radio play has sold billions of records and made the industry billions of dollars, but there you go.

In any case, Griffin wants to apply the same idea to downloading — and he’s not the only one. The Songwriters Association of Canada has proposed a similar thing, and so have other groups (the EFF has been proposing something similar since 2004). And ISPs are hopping on board this particular train in many cases, in part because they are being threatened with legislation in France and elsewhere that would hold them liable for policing their networks for copyright infringement. But does that make it a good idea? I don’t think so. And however Jim and others describe it, to me it sounds a lot like a tax. Mike Arrington goes further and calls it “protection money.”

Griffin says that “eventually” advertising might cover the charges, and those who wanted to surf without ads would have the choice to pay the fee. But it sounds like in the beginning the fee would be mandatory — even for those who don’t do any downloading at all. Does that sound fair? No. We have mandatory fees for things like education and road-building, but I don’t think music licensing falls into the same category. What about people who pay for songs legally through iTunes — do they get a free pass, or do they have to pay twice? Maybe Warner sees this as a way to put Apple out of business.

And what if such a fee is instituted — what about the movie companies, and other media companies? What about photographers? And what about the billions of dollars in software that is pirated online? After you add all the fees for those content creators, we’ll all be paying $100 for our Internet access (which of course the ISPs have started filtering and shaping because of all the downloading). And then there’s the goat rodeo that would be involved in figuring out who gets the money collected. Or maybe we could just let the ISPs and the music labels work all that out — I’m sure they would do it fairly, right?

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