A while back the excellent Public Radio International show This American Life was involved in a mini-scandal when reps of the show sent please stop e-mails to a number of websites and/or blogs that were offering free copies of the radio show for download. In the hyperbolic way of the Internet, the e-mails became lawyer's letters, or nastygrams, and Ira Glass, the shows self-deprecating host became the leader of some sort of "exhorbitant extortion" attempt to get people to actually pay -- imagine that, pay! -- for the expensive program he helps to create every week. You can read all about that craziness on Boing Boing. Anyway, the scandal turned out to be a bit of panic festival promoted by copyfighters for whatever private reason they had come up with that week. In this posting, Jared Benedict, one of the folks actually involved in the mess, clears up some details. Deep-linking vs. hosting, etc. Okay.
What I find most interesting in this story is a little bit of logic from Jared about TAL's own economic problems. He writes:
"TAL’s rational is that their contract with contributors states they must pay the contributors for each download. This excuse is a little strange considering This American Life writes the contract. Altering future contracts, and making the episodes freely available for downloading/timeshifting is feasable (NPR has done it.) Doing so would increase listenership. An increased listenership would mean TAL gets more money from
So, when your contributors (without whose creativity you would have no show) expect to be paid according to a contract, the solution is to alter the contract. In the end, that must have been what happened, because TAL podcasts are now available completely free.
Now, I get what's being said about increased audience and the increased revenues that can be expected. So, how's that working out for This American Life?
I'm a regular podcast listener of TAL myself, and recently each podcast has begun with a short(ish) donations pitch from Ira Glass. In order to keep the podcast free, he reasons, we're going to need to bug you like this so we can cover costs. They really want to keep these things free -- and why not, since the alternative is that people will take them anyway and then ridicule the show for expecting otherwise. But here's the kicker (quoted from the website pitch for donations):
"It's been a year-and-a-half since we decided to offer our show as a free, weekly podcast, and that's been a crazy, whopping success. But because so many people — sometimes more than half a million — are downloading and streaming our show each week, the Internet bandwidth to distribute the program this way costs $152,000 per year. We want to keep offering This American Life for free. You want us to keep offering the show for free. Our home station, Chicago Public Radio, doesn't need to make money on our podcast, but they can't lose $152,000 a year on it, either...
We'd love to take care of this expense with a flood of little donations from the people who actually listen to our show this way. And of course, if you feel that getting an hour of our show every week is worth more to you than a dollar a year, we'd be grateful for anything else you'd care to contribute. We really want to keep the podcast free."
What began as a problem paying contributors fairly for their work has become a problem paying for bandwidth. To me, that pretty, much sums up the current copyright debate right there. I don't doubt TAL pays its contributors well, whatever their revised contract has to say about downloads. But it saddens me to see the issue of creator pay so completely cleansed from the discussion. Then again, maybe creators have been set free from this petty concern.
UPDATE: I forgot to mention -- I took the $5 in donations I have so far received through my free download offer on The Uninvited Guest, and gave it to TAL for their podcasts. I hope David Sedaris can buy some gum with it.