Does the website need philsoophy essays?

Alistair Davidson lord_inh at
Sun Sep 9 14:10:40 UTC 2001

This is an email I just sent to my father, in an attempt to get him to 
license his music (he's in a Scottish folk band called "Tarneybackle") 
under the Open Audio License of the EFF. For those who don't know it, 
it's like the GPL but for music. The reference to a website at the end 
is because I'm making the band's website and want to license it under 
the GFDL- my father had no objections to that. I've snipped the 
beginning of the email, because it's about other things.

It occured to me after I sent it that with some editing, it could be 
useful as a philosophy essay on the website. If anyone's interested, let 
me know and I'll transform it from a letter into an essay, and maybe 
refocus it on software rather than music. If I've made any factual 
errors, corrections would be welcomed :0) Feel free to correct my 
spellign or grammar, but it would be pretty pointless if I'm going to be 
rewiriting it anyway.

Important note: I've made the "freedom" argument to my dad before, with 
mixed success. I deliberately focus on the "economic" argument this time 
to see if it works better.

Now, if you think back to your economics classes, you'll remember that 
in an environment where competition exists, prices approach the marginal 
cost. So if it costs £100 to create a prototype, and £1 to produce each 
copy of that, the price shouldn't be too much higher than £1 once 
competition has come into play. Obviously, companies like to have a 
profit margin and need to recoup their initial investment, but certainly 
the cost of one unit should be under £1.50.

Imagine that what you're producing is music, or software, or some other 
form of information. Suddenly, the marginal cost is extremely close to 
0. In fact, it may be 0, with a one-off cost to seed distribution of 
your music, and all further distribution performed by your listeners.

It seems ludicrous, in such an environment, to charge for distribution. 
The price tends towards the marginal cost, so the price of your music 
should be extremely low, if you allow listeners to make their own 
copies. What's needed is a way of covering that one-off cost. Companies 
and some individuals that profit from the sale of information would have 
us believe that a non-scarce resource should cost money. They try to 
enforce this idea by making a non-scarce resource scarce, using 
copyright laws. They talk of "intellectual property" and "copyright 
theft". But "intellectual property" is not like normal property. If I 
commit an act of "copyright theft", I don't deprive the owner of their 
"property", like with normal theft.

So, how do you cover the cost of creation (as apposed to the cost of 
production/marginal cost, which is effectively 0)? There are a number of 
ways. The most popular right now is to charge for additional value that 
is sold on top of your product- for example, making CDs and charging 
money for them is okay, because there is a significant marginal cost, 
and your listeners gain value from things like sleave notes, and the 
benefits of having the music on a physical medium. Red Hat software 
gives away its Linux distribution (you can download it from their 
website, and it regularly appears on magazine cover-disks), but if you 
pay them money they will also provide technical support, and an 
automated update service. Richard M Stallman, founder of the Free 
Software Foundation (that's free-as-in-freedom, not free-as-in-beer), 
supported himself for some time by giving away the Emacs text editor- he 
only charged if you wanted it on disk. He also made money by customising 
the software for companies- if a company wanted feature x, they could 
pay him to add it.

Red Hat turned profitable earlier this year, in an environment where 
many established IT companies are struggling- even Microsoft is 
frantically trying to find new business models, because most people no 
longer see any need to upgrade to the latest version of Windows or 
Office or whatever, they had 95% of user's needs covered by Windows 98 + 
Office 97 + Internet Explorer 5.0.

There's a second method, which is slowly gaining ground. This is to 
distribute your product free of charge, and ask altruistic 
listeners/readers/users to give you small donations if they like what 
you do- kind of like a busker. It sometimes helps to point out that if 
you don't recieve enough donations to break even, you won't be able to 
offer music or your comic or your software any more. gets 
money from advertising, and also offers an advertisment-free version, if 
you pay a subscription fee. Many online comics and garage bands also 
make money from selling t-shirts and so on.

There's one final myth that needs to be exploded- that if there's no way 
to make money from software development / music / comics / book-writing 
/ whatever, people will stop doing it. This is patently not true. You've 
been playing music for years, mostly at a loss. I have an online comic, 
which makes me no money but costs me none either. The world has 
thousands of garage bands and underground magazines and so on that 
barely cover their costs- why do they do it? The simple reason is that 
creating things is fun, and it's nice when people gain enjoyment from 
your work. Personally, I don't want art that's created solely for money- 
I'd rather have one decent amateur musician than a thousand Brittany 
Spears clones.

It's like "the Economist" was saying a while ago; the music industry 
wants to create artificial scarcity of information not because this is 
the best way of ensuring future creation of art, or because it's best 
for the artists, or the public. They want artificial scarcity in order 
to protect their existing business models.

I hope you can understand my position on copyright now. I don't 
necessarily want complete abolition, but huge reform is needed for 
copyright to keep in step with new technologies, and creating scarcity 
where none need exist is *not* the kind of reform I mean.

I'd ask that if you agree with any of my arguments here, you carefully 
consider the license under which your music will be published, think 
about using the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Open Audio License for 
the works that are copyrighted to Tarneybackle, and your interpretations 
of traditional songs (can performances of traditional songs be 

There's a FAQ about the license here:

The license itself is here:

The GNU Free Documentation License, which is the license I intend to 
apply to the website, is here:


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