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The Futile Struggle Against Free Content

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"The Futile Struggle Against Free Content"

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David Goldman writes about falling music sales:

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Apple’s (AAPL, Fortune 500) iTunes is credited with finally getting people to pay for digital music, but it wasn’t unveiled until 2003.

In the time between Napster’s shuttering and iTunes’ debut, many of Napster’s 60 million users found other online file sharing techniques to get music for free. Even after iTunes got people buying music tracks for just 99 cents, it wasn’t as attractive as free.

“That four-year lag is where the music industry lost the battle,” said Sonal Gandhi, music analyst with Forrester Research. “They lost an opportunity to take consumers’ new behavior and really monetize it in a way that nipped the free music expectation in the bud.”

Music industry executives can tell themselves that as long as they want. But under conditions of perfect competition, the price of a song ought to be equal to the marginal cost of distributing a new copy of a song. Which is to say that the marginal cost ought to be $0. That’s not a question of habit, you can look it up in all the leading textbooks. Of course real businesses rarely operate in circumstances of perfect competition, and record companies have a variety of political and legal tools they can deploy to try to protect monopoly rents. But this is hard to do. I think the real story with the iTunes store is that over time competitive pressure has impelled it to largely drop DRM and over time I expect we’ll see that the CPI-adjusted price of songs declines.

It is, of course, possible that at some point the digital music situation will start imperiling the ability of consumers to enjoy music. The purpose of intellectual property law is to prevent that from happening, and if it does come to pass we’ll need to think seriously about rejiggering things. But I don’t know anyone who would seriously argue that a music fan in 2010 is in worse shape than a music fan in 1990 was. It’s much, much, much easier to find and listen to a wide variety of songs from all over the world.

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