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Hilary Rosen's Uncomfortable Truths About Politics And The Music Industry
Is Hilary Rosen an Uncomfortable Truth Vortex?
By Matthew Montfort
(more articles from this author)
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On April 11, CNN pundit Hilary Rosen commented that the wife of presidential candidate Mitt Romney had never worked a day in her life. This of course gave the Republicans an opening to use their patented moral outrage smokescreen to counter their low poll numbers among women voters. Democrats, they maintain, don't appreciate the hard work of stay-at-home moms such as Ann Romney.

More than a decade before, Hilary Rosen stubbed her toe on the truth and ignited a Twitter firestorm that made her a household name, she helped me put my foot in my mouth so that the truth could set me free in a legal dispute. As one might expect, this is a bit of a long story. But I'm beginning to think that Hilary Rosen may be an uncomfortable truth vortex.

Before being a pundit, Ms. Rosen was the President of the Recording Industry Association of America, which was how our paths crossed. There was a major hearing in the Napster case, and I was the proposed Class Representative for Independent Musicians versus Napster. I was selected for that role because my world music band, Ancient Future, had an unusually high number of illegal downloads on Napster. I was to meet my attorney, Hannah Bentley, Esq., at the hearing, and afterwards I had a deposition to do at Napster headquarters. When I arrived at the courthouse, my attorney was not there yet, so I asked the court bailiff where I should sit. He sat me down on a front row bench. Soon thereafter, Hilary Rosen came over, introduced herself to me, and then congratulated me on how I had presented the issues facing independent musicians regarding file sharing in an interview on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle business section. I had no idea that there was a story about me in the paper that day. I had been interviewed and photographed weeks before, but nothing had come of it, and so I suspected that the interview had been shelved because it wasn't about a major pop star. So I was quite surprised to find out that it had been published the day of this first major hearing in the case.

I thanked Hilary Rosen for her encouraging words. Immediately after that, the man sitting next to me asked me who I was. I launched into my speech about how I was an independent musician who was suing Napster. I told him that I felt the debate was not being properly presented by the media, as they were framing it as the major labels and big rock stars against the advancement of the Internet and poor college students. If that were really the case, I would've been on the side of the Internet and poor college students. But those who were really going to be hurt were the artists who were just getting by, not the big media conglomerates and the major rock stars. The rich or famous would find other ways to make money. But great artists who were not household names, but were doing important work nonetheless, would likely find that although they might have 10 times as many people download their recordings for free, their paid sales would decrease by the same factor. As a result their records would no longer recoup their recording costs, much less produce royalties for the musicians themselves.

At this point, the man sitting next to me said, "I'm Hank Barry, the CEO of Napster. Nice to meet you." This is a very interesting way of meeting someone that you are suing. Nonetheless, recovering from my shock of having just given my whole spiel directly to the opposing side, I immediately explained that I was not against Napster existing, but that I just wanted musicians to be paid for their work. He told me that he originally wanted to charge for downloads and pay the artists, but the major labels wouldn't play ball, so he decided to force the issue by promoting the idea that file sharing was good for the advancement of the Internet and would not harm artists. Little did he know that this would become a popular myth that changed the public's attitude about paying for music permanently, causing the collapse of the entire music industry, making even Napster's business plan obsolete. I explained that I had a whole plan to create a statutory rate for downloads, just as the recording industry had a statutory rate that it could use to simplify publishing agreements. I handed him a paper that detailed my proposal. He read the proposal, and then told me that he agreed with much of it and would read some of it in his CNN interview after the hearing.

About then, my attorney showed up, catching me fraternizing with the enemy. But it was too late, as we were having an exciting conversation, and he actually confided to me how nervous he felt being at the hearing. It was then that I offered him my humorous short science fiction story about music on the Internet 30 years into the future: The Adventures of Ustad Global Loopmaster Yahoo in the 21st Century. He read my story right there, a lot of which has actually come true, and appreciated it so much that he immediately passed it around to Napster's very large legal team, which included the famous David Boies of Bush versus Gore fame. This was all very surreal.

I could write a book about everything that happened in this court case after this moment. But what is relevant to Hilary Rosen's uncomfortable truth vortex is that her introduction was the catalyst for a very interesting interaction. Hank Barry went on to lobby Congress to create a system very similar to my statutory rate proposal. Ironically, Napster not only stole my music, but also my solution to their problem. Unfortunately, that solution was opposed by the major labels. Sen. Orrin Hatch was at first intrigued by the proposal, but after the major media companies called it government price-fixing, he opposed it. Never mind the fact that the same companies love statutory rates when they benefit from them in negotiations with publishers. I made another proposal, Open Market Digital Distribution, which would have allowed copyright holders to set their own rates for statutory licenses, but the major labels opposed that as well, likely because it would have given the artists more power than they had at the time.

The major labels won their battle against Napster, but lost the war against illegal downloads, perhaps partly because they held on to their power over artists at the expense of creating a business model for downloads that would have worked for everyone. Perhaps the Republicans have just won their faux battle over the value of stay-at-home moms, but they still might lose a few elections due to their war on the reproductive rights of women. Perhaps that is how a truth vortex functions.

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