October 25 Readings-Burkhart

Music and Cyberliberties written by Patrick Burkhart centers on the state of music in the “music lifeworld,” and considers the social agents who seek to democratize and decolonize the business model of digital control and distribution created by “cultural landlords [of]… state-sanctioned monopolies” (Burkhart, 1). It addresses the inequities of bureaucratic and technocratic control over music and explores the emergence of a countercultural movement through the use of Jürgen Habermas’ social theory of communicative action.

As Burkhart explains in the text's introduction, a central concern of communicative action theory is the free transmission of information- a condition Habermas refers to as 'communicative rationality'. Drawing from philosophical thought of the Enlighenment, Habermas prioritizes free transmission of information as fundamental to the advancement of knowledge, as well as individual autonomy. Habermas was a witness to the manipulation of media/information channels during WWII era fascist Germany, and it is apparent that this experience informs his stance on the necessity for personal autonomy and rationalist clarity.

Burkhart specifically applies Habermas’ colonization thesis in order to more clearly illustrate the processes at work for social activists. Burkhart explains, “The colonization thesis helps explain how money and power can attach to the music lifeworld and convert it into complex musical systems for exchange and surveillance (Burkhart, 7).

Music and Cyberliberties is organized in a very efficient and effective fashion. While Burkhart’s writing can be verbose, once a reader gets past the six line sentences littered with the somewhat worn out and equivocal terms like “the celestial jukebox” and “music lifeworld,” a compelling study unwinds. The celestial jukebox, so often referred to by Burkhart, is defined as “an always-on entertainment appliance with all possible media selections available on demand, in exchange for wholesale deregulation of electronic media and telecommunication markets” (Burkart 1), which was adopted by the recording industry as a “business model for distributing music digitally” (Burkhart 20). This is the crux of the matter concerning the inequitable relationship between the government and commerce, which allows industries to merge legal accreditation with market power. The “music lifeworld,” as described by Burkhart is an environment of music “fandom,” music making, and music distribution. It is a world that exists both on and offline. In archaic cybercultural terms, it is a place that lives beyond the boundaries of a power switch on a modem as Lawrence Lessig, a cyberlibertarian activist, once contended.

Burkhart begins Music and Cyberliberties by first investigating the ways in which the music industry takes liberties with legal rights. This is where he discusses the views of “activist players” such as Lawrence Lessig and, more specifically in Lessig’s case, his views on capitalist commodification as well as his advocation for “the right of the Internet to be left alone by colonizing forces” and “the prospect of a right to free culture”(Burkhart, 27). There are numerous instances where Burkhart provides examples of the abuse of power by the Big Four major record conglomerates, such as the story of the Girl Scouts of America's legal issues with campfire songs.

It is easy to find this absurd and agree with the author, who is himself a cyberlibertarian. However, it is important to take a step back and ask a few key questions that are underlying the first chapter of this book. Burkhart argues that the major record companies are using the legal system and current copyright laws to their advantage, limiting access to music (and thus, to a part of culture) for many people in the world. The argument here is that music should be accessible to everyone, and should not require all of the licensing steps and money it currently demands. How does this argument hold up to tangible cultural items, or other items in general? Are textiles or jewelry free? Are works of art available for every person to have in their homes?

A review of the rationale behind copyright may be helpful in answering these questions.

Copyright and related rights protect the rights of authors, performers, producers and broadcasters, and contribute to the cultural and economic development of nations. This protection fulfills a decisive role in articulating the contributions and rights of different stakeholders and the relation between them and the public. The purpose of copyright and related rights is twofold: to encourage a dynamic creative culture, while returning value to creators so that they can lead a dignified economic existence, and to provide widespread, affordable access to content for the public. (World Intellectual Property Organization, http://www.wipo.int/copyright/en/)

It is much easier to see the value of something when it is a tangible item. During this chapter, it seemed that Burkhart may have gotten wrapped up in the billion-dollar music industry and lost sight of small artists who tour for a living, and need that $10 per CD in order to buy gas and food for the next week. I am not making an argument here that the practices of the large record companies are honorable or done for the good of the small artists (because clearly they are not). Burkart does give a nod to the potential abuses of artists by an industry that does not adequately compensate them for their labors. His argument might have been considerably strengthened, however, had he spoken more to this point and offered a more solid, convincing argument about the benefits and liabilities for the artist of musical exchange as mediated or not by the industry. We cannot lose focus of the value of music, videos, and other intangible cultural items. One can argue that it should all be free and it should not be seen as a commodity. But for better or for worse, in a capitalist society it does not work that way. Rather than arguing against commodification of music in general, one should take a political stance against capitalism and fight the battle on that end.

In this sense, Burkhart may be seen as taking a more reactionary stance than Lessig; however, neither really argue that music should be shared for free—merely that the restrictions on music and the "consumer is a criminal" mindset are destructive to the creative process and to the sharing of culture. As a legal theorist, Lessig in particular takes lengths to carefully specify the difference between holding the rights to a particular work (for example, the song "Strawberry Fields" by the Beatles) and the rights of others to draw from that source material in pursuing other creative projects. Both note that the length of copyright and restrictions on usage have only grown more severe in recent decades, and suggest that what is currently law and what should be law are quite different.

In Chapter 2, Burkart examines DRM and the effect it has on paying customers vs. those who illegally obtain music (or TV shows, movies, games, etc.). He points out that DRM only hurts customers who opt to legally purchase something, while people who rip CDs, or torrent media are totally unencumbered. This is a very important point that ties right in with the Big Four suing their own customers, and both of these points show that they don't care about making a product people want to buy, but rather squeezing everything they can out of a dying business model. In my opinion, DRM will never be sophisticated enough to remain unbroken and stay ahead of "pirates." Many companies have tried, and the only model that appears to work is a subscription model that requires authentication every time one logs in to the system. There are two notable examples that prove this inability to beat the hackers: the AACS encryption key (which restricts access to only those allowed to use it), and the Spore DRM debacle. The AACS encryption key was discovered and posted on the internet, and eventually ended up on the social news networking site, digg.com. Digg, under pressure from the AACS removed posts and accounts that posted the key, which of course made it more popular and pervasive on the site. Eventually Digg stopped doing this after seeing the futility of trying to censor many of their users. When it launched, Spore had notoriously problematic DRM that only caused pain in the customers who paid for the game. Those who pirated the game downloaded a product that had the DRM removed and had a much easier time using the software. It got to the point where paying customers who legally had a right to play the game turned to downloaded a cracked version so as not to deal with the DRM anymore. There is certainly an argument for DRM, and I think people would rather legally obtain (pay for) media, but there needs to be flexibility in the rights restrictions by not only the Big Four, but content publishers from different medias. As long as DRM continues to cause problems, people will turn to the uninhibited cracked versions.

In the second and third chapters, Burkhart considers “alternative jukeboxes” and countercultural movements, such as hacktivism, culture jamming, and radical media, that can create a social revolution within the context of the music production and distribution. Burkhart addresses this through the framework of Habermas’ colonization thesis and theory of communicative action. He states, “’colonization’ is a concept that can be disambiguated by the political economy of communication, which holds that commodification , spatialization, and structurization are interrelated logics of growth that are visible in capitalism’s modern history” (Burkhart, 61). Unfavorable effects of spatialization are observed through “the digital divide that persists between rich and poor countries,” “the work of being watched,” “the division of fan’s role into the consumer-user role,” and the juridification of users. (Burkhart, 62-63). Such movements, Burkhart suggests, can overthrow the hegemonic domination by the Big Four and their legal advances and create a more democratic listening space.

Burkart makes some intriguing connections between cyberlibertarian activism and the progress of new social movements in general. Burkart grounds cyberlibertarian impulses historically in the countercultural movements of the 1960’s as well as in the DIY philosophies of punk and post-punk movements. He recognizes different modes of thought and activist behavior ranging from the education of the public regarding abuses of power, to the proposal of alternative modes of exchange and reforms that promote fair use and privacy, to a radical upheaval of hegemonic ideas and challenges to the power structures currently in place. Because music is a symbolic interaction that reproduces culture and the act of exchanging music is reflective of important social realities, cyberactivists share a psychological and social orientation to the internet, and in particular to the exchange of music on the internet, as a place for playing out ideals about what society is and should be. For this reason, the struggle against legal barriers in cyberspace that, according to Burkart, “cause culture to stop flowing” plays out many of the tensions that have long been associated with social movements and activism in American culture. In particular, Burkart notes the continuous tension between collectivism and individualism: collectivism as expressed in the “community” aspect of file-sharing communities and the spontaneous “happenings” associated with culture jamming, and individualism as expressed in hacktivism and the drive to project an autonomous identity via the internet.

Burkhart further explores colonization through reinforcing client and consumer roles. The power dynamics that come into play within the clientization of music fans is a further invasion of the music lifeworld. Within this context music fans give up their legal rights in order to enjoy the conveniences of a particular music service. This is a social problem that is prevalent today. In order to access the services of Pandora, for instance, from an android cell phone, a music “user” must give that provider full internet access, personal cell phone information including contact data, access to read the state of every phone call, and access to some of the system tools on the phone. From this perspective, George Orwell may have been off a bit, but only by about twenty-six years. Not all is lost however, as Burkhart places social activists into this context as they design models similar to the counterculture of the 1960’s. They ultimately challenge the business model of distribution through anonymous file sharing, commercial alternatives, software innovations, and the ability to bypass copyright protections.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License