Tuesday, September 26, 2006

An Open Letter to Independent Music Online

Patrick Hefner's Editorial on the recent fuss on Bob Schrag's university lectures being sold online via his companies Independent Music Online service illustrates several false assumptions about content ownership, intellectual property, and the whole mess we are in right now.

The editorial is surprisingly reactionary. It uses the tried and true "The Man Has Got to Be Paid" argument, ignoring the fact that in this case the "The Man" has been paid. Schrag's lectures have been paid for by the students that paid to take his course. His salary has been paid by the university. He is simply repackaging: taking content that he has already been paid to deliver, and creating derivative work that he then sells, splitting the profit between himself and a third party entity.

There is much lost in this thread. Mr. Hefner never acknowledges the tradition that is contrary to that of commercial music publication, which is the tradition of scholarly publication, peer review. Much of what we enjoy as accessibile knowledge, what is taught in our schools, the words that we use to describe our world, are essentially in the domain of public. It is almost arcane to think of these things as belonging to some sort of artificial hierarchy based on the economic model that knowledge is a restricted commodity, and thus should be priced accordingly.

His examples are, to put it mildly, lame. Throwing out judgement calls such as "evil money" is an attempt to blur the argument. I for one am not arguing whether we should all become communists, capitalists or something else. I am talking about pragmatism.

Here we are again -- but someone has to be paid! The author of a book, that tirelessly does research, takes painstaking notes, this person should of course derive benefit from their work.

I am not denying that. What I am saying that in this case, the author has already been paid.

IF Dr. Bob Schrag decides to produce a television series in his own spare time, hires production people, and pays their salaries, well -- he should be able to sell this work.

However, that is not the arrangement he is in now. He is abusing a system that allowed a great amount of latitude in how faculty use their intellectual pursuits to further their career. Many faculty write textbooks, of course derived from their experience in teaching the subject matter. The faculty are allowed to do this.

What is happening here is simply abuse of that privelege. Nothing more. It has nothing at all to do with justifying a business model. It has nothing to do with the University wanting to split the profits. In fact, this bit of insight on the part of Mr. Hefner shows how ensnared he is in one way of thinking of the world, how limited his view of the world is.

By the way, I just love the OpenOffice.Org ad at the bottom of the page listing Dr. Schrag's lectures. But wait -- how can that work! They are giving the software and source code away for free! That simply can't be right!