October 10th, 2004



So there are going to be some lawsuits in the UK from our
equivalent of the RIAA, suing file-sharers. Sigh. This whole
thing bothers me, because it seems to be utterly devoid of
any sense of perspective. I continually hear about this study
or that, which proves or disproves that lots of profits are
being syphoned away illegally. And studies can show whatever
you want, if you try hard enough. That's the joy of marketing
research. If in any doubt, go back and watch Yes Minister.
So here's a few random points to keep in mind, when this next
comes around.

1. "file-sharing", "peer-to-peer" networks, etc. are not
evil, illegal, immoral, etc. No more so than, say, telephones,
fax machines, photocopiers or printers. They're just a
convenient means of copying data around. They're just a tool,
and like any other tool, they can be used or abused. Any laws
prohibiting, say, photocopiers, because they can be used to
duplicate copyrighted material illegally, should be thrown out
at the first attempt. Same with file-sharing networks.

2. By and large, the copyright laws do allow you to make copies
of purchased material for own use. We've been buying records
and making tapes of them to play in cars for decades. This right
shouldn't be taken away, either explicitly, or implicitly by
new laws that make it illegal to manufacture/sell/own equipment
that allows you to make/use such own-use/fair-use copies.

3. Said fair use has limitations and restrictions. You're not
allowed to make multiple copies of that record and give them to
your friends to play in their cars. Here's a newsflash for all
those downloading bucket-loads of music from the Internet: if you
don't own an original copy of the distribution medium, you're breaking
the law. If you get caught doing it, you should expect to have to
pay the appropriate penalty. Just like if you're speeding down a
completely clear road, slightly over the speed limit. Technically,
it's illegal, and you don't get to argue over it.

4. But remember that sense of perspective? I'm appalled at the
way the media portrays this issue. For starters, they make the
assumption that (a) anything shared on a file-sharing network
is illegally-copied, and (b) that anyone who uses digital
audio or video only uses it for said nefarious copies, the general
phrasing is selected to imply great evils are being done here.
Just as the technologies aren't inherently bad, nor are the
uses to which they get put. The BBC is often particularly
rabid on this issue, which is interesting given that the BBC
has a charter to provide content to the UK for "free", in exchange
for our license fees.

*Even if* you take it for granted that this is resulting in some
financial loss somewhere, then the individual's contribution is
insignificant. The issue here is loss of sales, and not every
digital copy made automatically translates into a potential sale.
The digital copies are "free", in the sense that whether you make
1 or 1000, it doesn't really make much difference. I'm quite sure
there are people who copy stuff because it's so easy to do so - and
it may even be easier to just copy everything in sight because it's
more effort than looking for something they actually want. And they're
never going to listen to/watch the copy, never mind go out and buy
the original. So that's not a lost sale, and as far as the media
conglomerate in question is concerned, has absolutely no effect on
their profits.

Now, obviously, this is not a defence. The copy's still illegal.
Fines can still be imposed. I merely point out that the nature of
the problem isn't merely a matter of counting files on the Internet
and multiplying by individual mark-up.

5. We're told music pirates are hurting artists. Well, maybe,
but arguably less so than the labels to which those artists are
signed. Paul Heaton of The Beautiful South said in an interview
that they released another best-of album primarily because he
still owed the record company about a million pounds. George Michael
has famously battled with his label. I don't mind the record
companies beating their drums about their own lost profits and
incomes, etc. But I do find it annoying when they claim it's all
about the artists.

6. And the real problem isn't music piracy. It's not even the
media companies who are struggling to come to terms with a world
that changed while they weren't paying attention. Yes, they need
a new business model - preferably one that involved them putting
out less dross - it's that they're the dupes in the battle for
digital transactions. They think that the name of the game is to
stop copies being made. Some of the smart ones think that the
game is actually to get paid for those copies. It's not. The game
is to own the technology that ensures only paid-for copies get
made - and that the technology owner gets a royalty for every one.
  • Current Music
    Lots, and all on CD, thanks.