Do bootlegs matter? What Discogs’ new crackdown means for the site’s future

By in Features





The Discogs clamp down dissected.

Since its inception 16 ago years, Discogs (short for Discographies) has transformed from a kind of Wikipedia for vinyl into the world’s biggest facilitator of buying, selling and cataloguing physical music releases online.

Though the site has always taken down records which violated its selling terms, over the past month Discogs has adopted an increasingly hard stance on bootlegs: hip-hop records, edits, live concert recordings, even unofficial releases from artists themselves (e.g. Moodymann) have fallen to its chopping block.

One of the most unique facets of Discogs is the listings information featured alongside every release. Generated by its users, it catalogues the lowest, highest, and median price a record has been sold for on site, as well as listing how many users have the record in their wantlist or collection.

The information is a vital resource for buyers trying to prevent themselves from getting screwed over, as well as a way for anyone interested in a record to discover more about it. Once a listing is removed from the site, all of the pricing, wantlist and collection history is lost, though Discogs apparently keep archival records of the information offline.

As vinyl sales continue to grow, with over 4.5 million albums  already sold on Discogs in 2017, and record pressing plants opening across the globe everywhere from a tiny Canadian island to South Korea to fill demand, what does this new enforcement mean for the future of the site and vinyl culture as a whole, and should Discogs be responsible for policing its site at all? We spoke to Discogs themselves, as well as the largest seller of records on site, a producer whose music was sold illegally, and a collector of hundreds of unofficial releases to find out.

What the largest vinyl vendor on Discogs thinks – Hon at Vinyl Pimp:

“I first noticed an increase in the amount of item violation messages we were receiving about one month ago. Initially I thought they were items listed on an incorrect release page. (E.g. A promo on an original version page.) I then ventured onto the marketplace forum, and discovered this has been going on since May 2017. Discogs staff have stayed away from the thread, and made no response.

I immediately decided to make a post on Facebook and got a few thousands views. Four hours later the press release was up on RA. Obviously, Discogs intended to get through these takedowns quietly, as there has been no warning to any of the users.

About 100 of our listings have been removed so far. They all have “Unofficial Release” as part of the format description.

Listing violation take downs have been around for a long time. It used to be because a promo was listed on the wrong release page, then racially sensitive materials were also getting taken down. Now we are facing the biggest and scariest action ever.

Vinyl Pimp sells on behalf of clients, as well as selling our own stuff we buy in. This means bootlegs and re-edits are part of our range, as that is what DJs and collectors buy for one reason or another.

Artists and labels don’t get royalties from our sales anyway, so in a way it doesn’t matter whether we sell bootlegs. We simply provide whatever is in demand – our action does not stimulate growth in any genre, style or format. We’ll continue to sell records on Discogs under their guidelines, as it is the best place for second hand items online.

Not only they have removed the releases from the marketplace, Discogs has taken steps to prevent users from adding these bootlegs to their collections and wantlists, which also prevents swaps between owners. These removed releases are going to be harder to come by, which will only drive the prices up.

They did not take this decision lightly – my guy from Discogs explained that they see a trend of other third party marketplaces (such as Amazon) getting hit by authorities for being responsible for the sale of copyright-infringed materials. They are doing this to prevent a real disaster, which in my opinion is a very smart move.”

What the collector with over 1000 records, including 135 bootlegs, unofficial releases and live recordings, thinks – Thomas J. Bollinger:

“I started with the Internet in 1994. So my opinion might be the same as many other veterans of the Internet: it should be a place of global free speech. I know that sounds naïve today, but then it was. So no, Discogs shouldn’t police what’s on the site.

Until I discovered Discogs, I wasn’t aware how many different versions of one record actually exist. And it was cool to find other media as well, like reel-to-reel, 8-track or 4-track cartridges for example.

I’ll continue to use Discogs, but I will search for an alternative to catalogue my collection. I will use it as a marketplace just like eBay and other sites that offer records. The USP from Discogs is basically gone. It’s just a lot of hassle for those that have entered their whole collection and inventory into the Discogs database.

Counterfeits are made to fool people and make a lot of money just by copying. What is wrong for a Rolex or any other brand article, is also wrong for records.

But it seems to me the question is not essential for Discogs. The essential question is: Are they liable for user submitted content? If so, why isn’t eBay? Why aren’t there police raids in thrift stores, second hand record stores and other off- and online marketplaces?

Bootlegs are not illegal in all countries, so Discogs could just inhibit the sale of bootlegs from certain countries if they are afraid of law suits. They could move their company and database in order to stay independent. There are plenty of free countries that value free speech (and free enterprise) much higher than the US.”

What a producer and collector whose album was illegally bootlegged thinks – Bullion:

“Discogs’ crackdown seems well intentioned, but I think it’s a bit of a shame. I’ve drawn a ton of influence (and samples, shhh) from music bought on Discogs, official or not. Mind you, there’s no shortage of great music available elsewhere, and perhaps it’ll save us all some time to let the tinnitus ring out.

There’s so much emphasis on ownership of music, and to simplify it, good music deserves to be heard! It’s obviously much more complex than that, and people need some protection over their work and payment for releases in their name etc. Selfishly, I just want to hear as much mind-blowing music while I’m alive.

The Pet Sounds: In the Key of Dee vinyl bootleg was so lazily made, it didn’t look, let alone sound good. It was overpriced and yet people still bought it, which says something about people’s obsession with vinyl. Discogs were pretty quick with getting it blocked once I asked. There are so many bootlegs and edits put together with love and they should be judged individually. A lot of admin though, I imagine.”

What the official line is – Chad Dahlstrom, COO at Discogs:

“Removing unofficial releases from the marketplace has been happening for years. We’ve continued to add resources and refine this process to help protect our community, artists, labels and rights holders, this means we’re able to be more proactive in enforcing items that violate our seller policy while continuing to honour DMCA takedown notices quickly.

As an international marketplace, we adhere to laws in countries we serve the most which are primarily the EU and US. Consequently, these laws are amongst the most stringent, so that works out well for protecting copyrights in other countries. For example, some nations allow the manufacturing of counterfeit music which could be legal to sell in those locations but would be considered a violation of copyright laws in the US or EU where the release is often ultimately purchased. For this reason, we choose not to be a platform for those types of transactions.

There are currently three classifications that are not allowed to be sold in the Discogs Marketplace: Bootleg, Counterfeit, and Pirate. In layman’s terms, those are: unauthorized recordings, fakes, and recordings that are distributed without authority. Edits, remixes, and mash-ups are a little more tricky because only the copyright holder and the creator knows whether or not the underlying tracks were cleared properly. We respond very quickly to notices about potential copyright issues, and we are working with the community members to identify suspect releases.

Our code is currently designed to remove the release in its entirety from the Marketplace without touching the history of its existence in the database. Copyright issues are not the only reason we block items from our marketplace. We also actively block Nazi/White Supremacy material and what we find is hate oriented propaganda material. That is done with the support of our community who help identify this material. Because we feel we cannot profit or support the sale of this we have always removed any sales history.

We don’t want to be the price guide, want list count or collection count for that material as we cannot support it as a company made up of caring humans. So, for now, this is just how the code works. We do still archive that data in the database as well, but we will not profit from it. For the record, our employees and company also contribute to causes such as the ACLU as we know some slip through the cracks and again that’s not who we are, and we want no profit from it.

The history of the release will maintain intact within the database and will remain. Our community has not identified sales data as a key historical marker, and honestly, the Discogs history would be a micro event on a bootleg pressed in 1964. With that said the importance of sales history is certainly debatable, and currently our system is designed to remove the release from the Marketplace which means the sales, want list and collection list history goes with it as well.

We have been taking this content off the marketplace for many years. We are only trying to get ahead of the issue and honestly believe supporting musicians, artist and label rights is an important part of our ecosystem, not to mention the right thing to do. We will continue to operate with the same music data and community first approach we always have. All we are doing here is more efficiently enforcing policies that are already in existence.”

So what?

Discogs has every right to limit what’s sold in its marketplace, but should also acknowledge that cracking down or banning bootlegs could change the very nature of the site itself.

More than any other music website, its influence and power today is thanks to the people who have contributed to it, to building listing information that makes the site so comprehensive and diverse.

Discogs’ transformation, from a database into a valuable resource, which prevents buyers from paying more than they should for a release, is something that the site itself has embraced in the past. It also benefits from more people selling in its marketplace, receiving a percentage of every sale.

To block the sales of Nazi or hate-filled music is absolutely right. To donate to the ACLU in efforts to counter racist music that might have slipped through the cracks of its marketplace is commendable.

To vaguely equate racist, banned music with bootleg releases that are in violation of copyright is another thing entirely. Where racist rhetoric inspires hate, violence and division, “unofficial releases” are, at their best, an example of creative or collaborative inspiration. This is especially the case for hip-hop, where a sample, mixtape or live recording can transform a known track or album into something fresh and new.

If the reason for this newly enforced crackdown is because Discogs isn’t able to properly monitor what happens on site in a nuanced way, it should just say so. By removing an innocuous listing history from a 1967 concert recording, or a Dub Syndicate album, or a hip-hop bootleg, Discogs doesn’t just do a disservice to the people who use it, it risks losing its credibility as the world’s most comprehensive resource for music discography, pricing, and releases.