Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Free Music - An interview with Ram Samudrala

- David "Skinny Devil" McLean
originally published at Tinfoil Music
Date: Friday, October 26 2001 @ 16:45:03 BST

Ram Samudrala is author of, among other important works, the "Free Music Philosophy" - which can be accessed via Ram's site (http://www.ram.org) or the EFF's site (http://www.eff.org). In essence, Ram's manifesto offers a unique and radical solution to the problems associated with copyright law and it's current abuse.

I had the opportunity to speak with Ram recently... 

1) Ram, how & when did you first get interested in copyright issues (specifically) and IP issues (in general)?

It probably began in 1990 or so, when I got into Unix, GNU Software, and the growing Linux movement. It came to a head after some exchanges on alt.music.alternative in 1994/1995 about the nature of music (which involved Bill Barbot of the band Jawbox who had just been signed to Atlantic, and later dropped). At this point, I decided to write the Free Music Philosophy.

2) Can you sum up the "Free Music Philosophy" and tell us if it has evolved since your original essay was written?

The philosophy, as it were, is that music is best done in a pure manner without monetary motivations, that control of copying of music through legal force is unethical and wrong (and untenable), and it is through this control that record labels achieve their hegemony and stifle creativity. As it was originally written, it involved several compromises reflecting the radically diverse views of musicians. The essay itself hasn't changed very much (minor modifications have been released under different version numbers), but I have written several articles in support of the Free Music Philosophy including a "Progress and Prospects" article, a "Future of Music" article, and an "Ethics of Intellectual Property" primer:


3) How will the artists make money?

There are a lot of ways. People who perform live can continue to make money by playing live (I personally believe the loss of sales of copies will be more than countered by the increased publicity). People who wish to sell something must still do well at marketing and can make money by doing so. I myself have sold over 6000 copies of my first CD even though all the music is completely copiable. There's no single answer to assure the success of a musician, but if a musician is successful (i.e., popular), then the money will come, regardless of whether there are copyright laws. It is popularity in this world that's valued. That's why sports and movie stars make more than scientists.

4) How have well-publicized cases (like Napster) altered your view of copyright reform and IP law, and do you work directly with any reform organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Music Relief Association, or the Future of Music Coalition?

They've not altered my view of IP law--just provided more evidence for my views. Way back in 1995, I wrote this (the last section of the Free Music Philosophy):


"What will happen to the music industry in this digital age?

You, the artist, will have more power with your recordings with this approach. You can be as creative as you want and spread your music around and no one can stop you, as they did with Nirvana's In Utero, and say that you need to change the production on this album because it won't sell as is. Perhaps we can then see individual music instead of music for the masses. Given the nature of how you can spread your music around the Internet, you will be enriching the amount of information in the net as well as reaching audiences in ways you've never dreamt of before!

In a more futuristic sense, the major record label's stronghold on what kind of music gets heard by the people will be broken. Music has become an institutionalized industry that churns out musical
product. The music industry restricts copying and other uses of music in order to maximize profit, but this comes at a great cost, that of abridging the spread of creativity. This will change. It is now
possible for performers to spread their musical message directly to fans via high-technology, thus enriching the artist and the music world in all possible ways. Music is about creative and passionate ideas. Not product.

"That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.---Thomas Jefferson "

I don't work directly with any of the other organisations you mention (though I've had some good discussions with people from the EFF) and even though there is some effort to have a Foundation for the Freedom of Music (http://www.free-music.org), I'm not a big believer in organisations. As I outline in the Future of Music article (http://www.ram.org/ramblings/philosophy/fmp/music_future.html), I prefer to see more bottom-up spread of these memes. And it has already happened. In some sense, there's no need for reform: people are able to do with music (compositions as well as sound records) pretty much what they please. The Free Music Philosophy is reality.

5) Do you feel that there is any idea or process or product that should be covered by IP law? That is, is there ever an appropriate time for an individual or an organization (whether it is a non-profit educational institution or a for-profit media giant) to have a monopoly on an idea for any length of time, whether that idea is for education, entertainment, health, or what-have-you?

I don't think there is any time that limited monopolies are a good idea (keep in mind that ideas are not protected by copyrights or patent--only their original expressions in the forms of works of authorship or inventions are). There are times, I think, when limited monopolies might not cause harm, i.e., might not be a bad idea: about a couple of hundred years ago. (:

6) Now that you've begun your professorship at the University of Washington at Seattle, are you still musically active, and do you have any new projects on the horizon?

Yes, I am very active. I'm working on my second album, Twisting in the Wind, and about half of it is done: http://www.twisted-helices.com/th/

I've written all of the album, but I'm slowly recording it. I'm also working on two other projects simultaneously: an album of covers, as well as album containing "music inspired by genomes and proteomes". My first album was made quickly (about an year) since all recordings were essentially the first take. I placed this limitation because I'm a bit of a perfectionist. Though it may be hard to believe, everything in my second album is the way I want it and to get to this point it takes time.

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