Not All Content Is the Same (duh!)

Listening to the debate around copyright in the EU, one can get the impression that all content is the same. Some things must be simplified of course, but scratch the surface and the differences are obvious. Digitalisation is not some sort wave that sweeps in over land, making everything equally wet (though some talk about it like a force of nature). Better to think of digital possibilities, different depending on where you stand and with no inherent direction.

Take music. Songs are well-defined, three minutes or so of audio. Easily packaged and compressed, simple to distribute in digital networks. Easily recognized, even when abused into becoming ringtones. The product of human creative effort, somebody putting their heart and soul into it, many hours in the studio, lots of work on photos, sleeves, costumes etc, but still inexpensive to produce compared to video games or feature films. The listening takes many forms – from complete focus when reading the lyrics along to a new song from one’s favourite artist, to something playing in the background as you work or do the dishes. The overwhelming experience of being in a crowd at a concert. Or ignoring elevator music. Music are all those things. The music business is a sophisticated structure of artists, producers, song-writers, labels, publishers, booking agents, promoters, managers, lawyers, collecting societies, streaming services and many more, each with the task to do in the giant music anthill. Music can be immediate, or it can grow on you. We listen to our favourite songs over and over again. Play them to our friends. We can meet other cultures through music, enjoying the voice without understanding the words. All this is obvious, but at the same time easy to disregard.

Compare this with film. I mean feature films that play in cinemas or on your phone/laptop/tv-screen, not counting internet videos, television, shorts, documentaries and the countless other forms of moving images. Feature films involve even more specialists than music and the production is much more complex and costly. Think about the credits of any movie, long lists of names rolling for five or ten minutes after the end. Travel to locations in far away places to shoot in the right setting. Editing for months. Visual effects and animations. You get the idea, production budgets are high in most cases. There are no concerts for film. Yes, there are festivals and you can share the experience with others in a crowded movie theater. But there is no live performance. The artist is not as prominent, instead the actors and director share the spotlight. Film can be a powerful way to meet a different culture, but translation is needed. Film is an illusion, a spectacle, a contract between the viewer and the film-maker to suspend disbelief and accept that ET wants to phone home. Our favourite movies stay with us, but we rarely watch them over and over again – at least not hundreds of times.

Both music and film touch us and speak to us as humans (except sometimes they’re crap). But they do so in very different ways. The may have similar legal rules providing the framework for authorship, investment and licenses, but that’s only the foundation. The structure on top is complex and always evolving. Anyone who makes rules or technology for music or film must keep this in mind!

Yes, these points are obvious, but there is anyway a lot of confusion around this, intentional or not. Also, this helps explain why music and film come to different positions on policy sometimes, for example in the current debate around the EU copyright directive. (Parts of) the music industry prefer Youtube to pay license fees for the music on its network. It has the structures – collective rights management – to deal with that. Film on the other hand, is not blanket-licensed like music (where all radio-stations can play all songs) but instead licensed to particular licensees with individual terms. It wants Youtube to enforce its rules and make sure films do not appear on its network without permission. Hope that helps to make sense of it!

And this was only music and film. Next, look at books, newspapers, sports, television or video games…