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The Canadian Music Industry Wants to Censor Google Searches

If you believe the chief lobbyist for the music industry in Canada, it's a sad fact of life that honest, hard-working Canadian artists just aren't making money anymore because of all the illegal downloading and the Google. Is this true? No. Is it a...

by Christopher Malmo
Jan 24 2014, 5:44pm

The Canadian music lobby wants us to adopt some recent American customs.

If you believe the chief lobbyist for the music industry in Canada, it's a sad fact of life that honest, hard-working Canadian artists just aren't making money anymore because of all the illegal downloading and the Google. Is this true? No. Is it a reason to censor the internet? No. Will common sense stop the music lobby from trying to trick the government into censoring the internet for their benefit? Of course it won't.

On January 16th, Graham Henderson, the head of the Music Canada (previously the Canadian Recording Industry Association) complained that Google was making it hard to find legal sources to purchase music in Canada, and was providing easy traffic for sites distributing illegally copied music. His solution? To ask the government to mandate that internet service providers censor sites and search results that link to suspected pirated material. Reaction to this plan has so far been decidedly negative. Why is it such a bad idea?

Let's begin with some history. Back in the late-90s when your basement dwelling uncle paid $500 for his first CD burner, the Canadian government and the music industry arrived at what can be now described as a very short-sighted deal. To "offset the lost revenue from music sharing," the government put a 29¢ levy on each blank CD, no matter what people were buying them for.

When Napster and Kazaa came around, millions of high schoolers were involuntarily subsidizing the industry when they burned "Rap Mix 3" to bang in their discman on the bus. Since the fees were distributed based on radio airplay and commercial sales samples, the bulk of the money wound up going to—surprise—major labels and artists. Keep this in mind when you hear the industry claim to give a heck about compensation rights for artists, because the odds are they're not referring to your friend who's in a band.

To date, over $100-million has been taken from the pockets of Canadian consumers in this blank media scheme. But with the mass adoption of the all-digital format beginning in the early 2000s and dominating music purchases now, the gravy train has mostly dried up. The industry failed to convince anyone it was a good idea to impose a fee on mp3 players (why not impose a levy on hard drives too, by that logic?) so all of a sudden the public trough looks empty.

Well, it's not really empty. The Ontario government is spending $15-million a year to subsidize the province's music industry.This is in addition to the infamous Canadian Content regulations, which stipulate that at least 35% of all major radio airtime must be the Tragically Hip or similar. As consumers shift more music consumption to digital streaming or satellite, it's become quite easy to listen to broadcast without much exposure to Canadian artists, so I suppose this must cut into revenues a bit. What's the plan for making money, then?

This probably isn't a new thing, but it's been very fashionable lately for industries that are losing the "adapt to the internet" game to make enormous efforts to change the rules of the game to protect their interests. When your alternatives are A) adapt to survive or B) take one for the team and die on the altar of creative destruction and capitalism, I guess changing the rules seems like a good middle-ground option.

It's no secret that the demand for music isn't going anywhere. Instead of finding ways to deliver music in ways anyone wants, Middlemen—uh, Music Canada have chosen to throw a tantrum "because piracy." Others are doing the same thing around the world. Personally, I've already stocked up on microwave popcorn in anticipation of the legal and political Wrestlemania that the presence of a 3D printer in every home will bring. Legions of people have been waiting a long time to "download a car,"and if the numbers on Game of Thrones downloads are any indication, you can bet that they'll come close to putting Ford Motors out of business. In fact, there's already a group working on a 3D printer large enough to construct an entire house in 24 hours.

At this moment, however, services like Netflix and Spotify have been exploding in popularity because they deliver content affordably to people in ways that leverage new technology, instead of fighting endless legal battles against it. Canadians are chomping at the bit to pay for these services, and are ironically held back by strict US IP law, bizarre licensing deals and non-arrangements, Canadian Content rules, and the industries' own sluggishness to innovate.

Canada just went through an arduous but mostly compromise-driven process to modernize its copyright law in 2011, and the political will for censoring the internet at a domestic level seems tepid. Moralizing demands for a UK-style porn filter mercifully fell on deaf ears, hairy palms, and blind eyes in the federal Cabinet. This is for very good reason—censorship is a very blunt instrument when applied to the internet, and the UK filtering system has blocked hundreds or thousands of legal, non-porn sites labeled extremist, or pirate, or pertaining to sex education. Canadians shouldn't accept anything of the sort. As I've reported for VICE before, this includes the TPP, a trade agreement under negotiation right now that threatens to radically shift the balance of our copyright laws in Big Content's favour.

Maybe the music lobby is afraid that in the absence of the incentive to become a famous pop star, or even to earn a decent living making music, people will give up on music and the entire sonic art form as we know it will disappear. This isn't a convincing enough reason to censor and surveil the internet, which the Pope recently called a gift from God. As technology rapidly displaces workers and shakes up nearly every industry, it's unfair for one business to ask the government to legislate future profits into existence by criminalizing internet users. Things are weird right now, but I'm confident we can find a better way to compensate creators for their incredible work.

Chris Malmo is a donor relations coordinator at OpenMedia.

@chrismalmo