Jason Robert Brown, and the Sound of (Copyrighted) Music

Jul 16, 2010 | The Publishing Industry

I write a lot about copyright, and licencing, and the situations arising from filesharing, so the shennanigans with Jason Robert Brown were of particular interest to me. In short – JRB is a famous composer, and he was slightly and understandably miffed that some sites allow his sheet music to be accessed for free.

So he opened up a dialogue with one of the users of such a site, and the resulting exchange is enlightening and informative. His opponent is a teenager, a young aspiring singer who sees nothing wrong with filesharing.

What I found most interesting is that her attitude towards sharing online was very different to his, and she had a remarkably good grasp of how it could benefit him in a promotional way. JRB didn’t agree, and directed her to buy his music at four dollars a pop – not much, of course, but without a credit card, she couldn’t pay it. He did come off as rather heartless in that respect.

Several things struck me about all this. The first was that the teenager’s attitude is certainly not unique. Her generation is completely comfortable with sharing files online, both technologically and morally, and JRB seems rather blinkered to this fact. That’s a little dangerous when you consider that her generation will grow into the consumers with money that he will be playing to in a few years. Public perceptions shift and evolve over time, and hanging your future earnings on the idea that you can prevent the attitudes of the younger generation from merging into the mainstream is not a good business decision.

The second was that he just didn’t seem to realise that it’s not about him. This teenager likes his music. She has access to sheet music that she wouldn’t normally have available, because her parents won’t pay for it. She takes the time to learn it, sing it, make it a part of her life – and she tells him this, and explains that she loves his music so much that she wants to promote it and share it with others.

He, of course, is of the opinion that she could just as easily promote it with paid sheet music instead of free copies. But – and this is very important – it’s not about him. He’s not the only composer in the world. For a teenager who can’t afford to buy sheet music, it’s easier to download than to find a way to pay, so if he succeeds in having his music removed from this site, it won’t somehow convince her and her peers to buy it instead. They’ll just look for another free song that’s been left online by another composer who isn’t concerned about filesharing. Bottom line here, he’s wilfully restricting the market for his work because he can’t stand the idea that someone is getting his work for free.

The third thing, and I am tired of saying this, is that he repeatedly refers to it as ‘illegal’. Anyone who’s done any research into this area should know that filesharing is not illegal.


It’s actually a civil case, as opposed to a criminal one. That’s why you should be calling it infringing behaviour, not illegal behaviour. Small distinction, I’m sure, but it’s an important one.

The fourth thing is that he uses incorrect analogies. The screwdriver, for example – he compares giving away a finite good (end result: he does not have a screwdriver anymore) with an infinite good (end result: he still has his own copies of his music). It’s irritating when people make these comparisons and don’t think them through.

Imagine if you had a screwdriver, and your friend wants one, and you have the technology to make an exact copy of it in about a minute at zero cost. Maybe it’s an exceptionally well-made screwdriver, with variable size and type and whatnot, and it took you a year to craft it. So you tell your friend, “Sorry – you need to give me four dollars before I’ll make you a copy”. Maybe he’d give you the money, but that’s a bit of a stretch if there are a hundred other screwdriver craftsmen who’d be happy to make him a copy for free, and all of them are clamouring for his attention.

It’s all market forces, kids. If people know that it effectively cost nothing to produce the goods they are buying, they expect to get it for free or for close to free. Asking them to pay when your competitors are giving it away for promotional purposes is a colossal mistake. Maybe their goods are not as well-made, and maybe you’ll get some sales out of the people who prefer quality over price, but at the end of the day it’s not you who’ll be getting the attention (and thus the money) of the majority of consumers – and unless your goods are significantly better and differentianted from the competition, you will go out of business.

(But wait, I hear you cry, how can they make money if they’re giving away their goods? In response to this, I can only suggest that if an entrepreneur can’t figure out how to take consumer attention and turn it into sales and income, then perhaps they should get a different job.)

In summary, I really feel for Jason Robert Brown. I’m not callous enough to ignore his point of view that he should be paid for the sweat and blood he put into his music, but the simple fact remains that his work is going to be shared whether he likes it or not, whether he rails against it or not, whether it’s copyright infringement or not. He says himself that the recording industry is in freefall right now, and he’s not wrong – but the music industry is booming, and musicians are finding new ways to make a living by reaching out to their fans directly, and by not relying on the sale of the infinitely and easily copied streams of data that make up their music. See the latest report from the UK, if I remember right – people are spending more money on music than ever before, but it’s all in live acts and not plastic discs.

I feel bad for him because all he can see is how he’s not being paid his share of four dollars. He’s so focused on how the Internet is losing him a little bit of money that he doesn’t recognise how he could be using it to make a huge pile of money. It’s like Harry Potter all over again – up to May this year, the series was not allowed to be released as ebooks due to the fear of piracy. The result, of course, is that there was no other way to get it as an ebook except through illicit channels, which means it was heavily pirated anyway and both Rowling and Bloomsbury have lost out on potential ebook sales of the most popular children’s series in the last decade!

I often wonder who was ultimately responsible for that particular business decision. Was it Rowling, perhaps? Did Bloomsbury buy into the media panic over filesharing and nudge her into it?

Anyway, back to JRB. People are fond of saying that there’s no easy answer to filesharing, but I disagree. There is one answer that counts: Evolve or die, gentlemen. If your business model can’t survive in the age of the Internet, you have a stark choice – develop a better one, or accept that you will fail.

There is no in-between, no happy medium. You are not a special snowflake that the digital age will treat gently and make exceptions for.

Evolve or die.