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Rant: why digital levies won’t work

Last week the Dutch artist’s union and the the Dutch consumer association jointly proposed a levy for digital media and internet connectivity. The flipside of this deal would be that downloading stays legal in the Netherlands (as it currently is). And no three-strikes-and-you’re-out legislation either. Hurray! Obviously, the electronics industry is vehemently against it. And so am I. Because the notion of collective rights societies distributing levies in any form is an idea whose time is behind us. It just sweeps the problem of any renumeration of artists for fair use under the rug of an opaque collective rights society. Any form of compensation of fair use of copyrighted works runs into the same wall: how do you distribute the proceedings in a way that at the very least resembles fairness if you can’t meter the actual use? Which brings you to one of the main reasons why the use in question is considered fair use: metering it would be too much of an intrusion in personal life. By now we should realise that the intrinsical fairness of the notion that an artist should be compensated for fair use is drowned out by the intrinsical unfairness of any metric for distributing the proceedings. Or in other words: that we can’t make it work. Maybe it is time to accept the reality that any harm caused by filesharing in the private domain is by far the lesser evil of the harms of any scheme trying to compensate it. Artist do profit from the cost savings digital technology brings them when producing creative works, they probably should also accept the darker side of digital technology in bringing down distribution costs to almost zero. Fair use copying is just the wastage of the digial era.

Maybe it is time to be reminded of one of the old Turkish folk stories about Nasreddin Hoca:

Nasreddin and the Smell of Soup

One day, a poor man, who had only one piece of bread to eat, was walking past a restaurant. There was a large pot of soup on the table. The poor man held his bread over the soup, so the steam from the soup went into the bread, and gave it a good smell. Then he ate the bread.

The restaurant owner was very angry at this, and he asked the man for money, in exchange for the steam from the soup. The poor man had no money, so the restaurant owner took him to Nasreddin, who was a judge at that time. Nasreddin thought about the case for a little while.

Then he took some money from his pocket. He held the coins next to the restaurant owner’s ear, and shook them, so that they made a jingling noise.

“What was that?” asked the restaurant owner.

“That was payment for you,” answered Nasreddin.

“What do you mean? That was just the sound of coins!” protested the restaurant owner.

“The sound of the coins is payment for the smell of the soup,” answered Nasreddin. “Now go back to your restaurant.”