The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) had an article that caught my attention on Thursday. "Music Labels See New Threat From Satellite Radio" approached the copyright wars from a different angle than we've been following with Google Print.
"The beleaguered music industry faces a new, unexpected threat in its battle to protect copyrights and royalties: the arrival in stores of new satellite-radio receivers that mimic iPods in their ability to store and organize hundreds of songs." (WSJ)
I don't know about you, but I haven't paid much attention to the satellite radio phenomenon. When I listen to radio, it's generally NPR. Before reading the article, all I knew about satellite radio was that Howard Stern was going to Sirius to escape what he saw as a repressive atmosphere at his current station . . . and because he was offered a $500 million dollar contract over five years.
A year ago, Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. and XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc. had slightly more than four million subscribers between them. Subscribers--as in people willing to buy a special radio AND pay $13 a month to listen to hundreds of music and talk radio channels. By the end of this year, the WSJ estimates that "the two services should have nearly 10 million paying subscribers between them." That's a huge jump. And that's before Howard Stern begins broadcasting for Sirius starting next month.
Now both services are poised to introduce new radio receivers which will permit subscribers to record and organize songs "as if they had bought them individually, for instance by setting up playlists and deleting songs they don't like. Because both services offer niche channels, it becomes easy for users to quickly find artists or songs they want and store them." (WSJ)
The music industry is understandably upset and argue that the new receivers are essentially recorders that permit subscribers to obtain songs without paying for them. "The new radio receivers tap into deeply held anxieties at record labels, which are trying to embrace new technology at the same time they fight off widespread online piracy of their product. The music industry has seen sales of recorded music fall steeply in the past six years, in part because of the industry's inability to harness new technologies." (WSJ)
The new receivers aren't cheap. The Sirius S50 retails for about $330, but can store almost 750 songs--more than even a comparable iPod. While portable, it must be placed in a docking station to receive the satellite-radio signal. It's only a matter of time before these receivers become truly portable, allowing the subscriber to listen anywhere.
To complicate matters, "(t)he current agreements under which the two satellite-radio companies pay labels for the right to play their music are expiring next year and must be renegotiated . . . The labels now want to boost their rates, saying they gave satellite favorable rates years ago when it was a struggling new technology." (WSJ)
Many people are familiar with the Mp3.com lawsuit where "(i)n 2000, a federal judge in New York ruled that Mp3.com's copying of CDs without permission infringed upon the record labels' copyrights." (The Salon, Farhad Manjoo, 11/9/05) In fact, the author and publishers' lawsuits brought against Google Print for copyright infringement have been filed in the Southern District of New York where that case is an important precedent.
Our copyright laws have not kept up with our technology. If we have learned anything from history, it is that technology cannot be stopped. Technological advances eventually win out and, in the process, change social mores, economic status and legal viewpoints.
The lawsuits being brought today over music and print copyright issues are just the beginning. I hope the print industry will be more far-seeing than the music industry has been to date and, instead of trying to stem the tide, will figure out how to sail with it.