net.wars: Tax the iPod!

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 29 April 2005

If you were planning to set copyfighters alight with righteous anger it's hard to imagine a better scheme than proposing a surcharge on the amount of storage in MP3 players. This very thing is being suggested by the Dutch foundation Stichting Thuiskopie, previously an apologist for the levy on blank CDs and DVDs.

Wendy M Grossman

Let's leave aside the essential unfairness of collection societies, which scoop up revenues from all and sundry and redistribute them according to who on their books is most successful. Elton John and Madonna do just fine out of this system. But the folksinger and songwriter David Mallett, writer of hundreds of songs over the last 30 years, one of the earliest of which ("Garden Song") has been recorded by everyone from the Muppets to John Denver,  recently mentioned in passing that the songwriters' society ASCAP sent him a check for two cents.

Let's also leave aside the essential unfairness of levying royalties on blank media that are used for all kinds of things that aren't making and storing unauthorised copies of music.

The fact that my 20Gb Archos Jukebox Multimedia (which I paid my own money for, by the way) and my 1Gb iRiver 790T (ditto) hold my own music alongside interviews I've recorded in the course of business as well as MP3s of varying origin is clearly irrelevant to the necessary and vital quest to ensure that no copy goes unaccounted for and charged. If it will save the life of just one musical note…

Let's even leave aside the essential absurdity of a proposal that would create such an utterly uneven market within what is supposed to be a common European shopping area that everyone would be importing iPods and other music players from Belgium, France, the UK…anywhere that was within the EU and wasn't the Netherlands. Unlike blank CDs and DVDs, which are recurring purchases, MP3 players are things that people buy only occasionally. If you're faced with an extra charge of €3.28 per gigabyte (that's €65.60 for the Archos) your gadget doesn't have to get all that capacious before it suddenly seems logical to spend the added tax on a short vacation instead. Especially given that the contents of any MP3 player change with some frequency. In the life of an iPod, a user could shuffle through terabytes of music.

Instead, let's point out two things. First of all, levies don't achieve their stated purpose. Let's say you've just forked out a couple of hundred Euros extra on an MP3 player over and above what folks in other countries pay. What would you think? You would think, "I've paid all this money to recompense the music industry for piracy. Therefore, I'm bloody well going to download every damn thing I can, because I've already paid for it."

That's just great for the collection societies, whose revenues and importance increase, and the artists who show up on their radar are perfectly happy to be paid extra money they weren't expecting. Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand, and Elvis Presley's heirs don't have a problem. Our friend David Mallett is lucky if he gets two more cents. And the many artists whose music is released onto the Net but who aren't members of the collection societies…get nothing.

Instead, what the levies achieve is to create a new revenue stream for the recording industry. Kind of as if when cars were invented their manufacturers were forced to pay a road tax - a levy on every mile they travelled - that was turned over to horse breeders and buggy manufacturers. Actually, they almost sort of did this in the state of Washington, where at one time all motor vehicles had to have a man carrying a flag or a lantern 50 feet in front. So you could have your car, but you had to have your horse, too - or go very, very slowly. We laugh at that car law now, but this week Bush signed into law the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act, making sharing even one copy of a pre-release movie a federal crime. (FECA? That's the best they could do? They couldn't add "and Law" to the end of that to help the acronym out a little bit?)

But if the Dutch must do this silly thing, at least they don't have to do it in this damn silly way. I have a much better plan here. Charge the levy on the power sources that run the MP3 players rather than the storage space. Put the tax on batteries and AC power (they can estimate how much is being used to charge MP3 players by statistical analysis based on the number of players and survey results on average use). Most of the objections already listed will still apply. But at least the wider public will get something out of a tax on player energy: a deterrent to added energy consumption. That's gotta be good, right?

Besides, you can't evade a tax on your electrical supply by buying it in another country. Oh, sure, batteries you can buy elsewhere - but most of the bigger players use special rechargeables, and the number of suppliers is limited. See? Much easier to control and tax.

I still maintain, though, that my proposal of a few months ago is the simplest. If they really want to end all unauthorised copying of the works they've forced artists to sign over to them, all the record companies have to do is…

…stop releasing them.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).