Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Copyright Extremists take over the Asylum

The news that a pub has been fined £8000 because a customer used their wifi access to illegally download a piece of music will send shockwaves through the internet community as well as the licensed trade. Pubs have, for a while, been struggling to compete with cheap beer in cans and the attraction of the internet, which entices punters to stay at home. Provision of free wifi internet access in pubs was meant to change that, drawing people out of their homes into the more socialble environment of the local. Where I live, it is not just the pubs which have wifi, but most of the cafes as well.

However few, if any pub managers are going to risk being fined £8000 or more as a result of a customer downloading a piece of music. The poor pub manager in this situation has not broken any laws, has done nothing morally wrong, and certainly has not breached anyone's copyright. Still the copyright extremists have persued and punished him despite his innocence. Just when you thought that you had the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt, you discover you are wrong.

The more scary element of this however, is how this could affect ordinary home users of the internet. It is not difficult to piggy-back onto someone's wifi connection, where I live I can pick up about 20 different wifi connections in addition to my own, most of which come through as "very good" or "excellent". If I try sitting in my car outside in the street I can get even more and with stronger signals. I can even get the wifi of the pub round the corner. So it is not going to be long before large numbers of people are going to be prosecuted and fined (or even imprisoned or bankrupted) for copyright infringement even though they are completely innocent and have committed no crime, and certainly no infringement of copyright.

Copyright was originally started (as the Statute of Anne) in order to protect the work of creative people such as writers and artists, to give them the incentive to be creative and produce creative work. Copyright protected this and meant that they could make a living out of being creative without being ripped off by people who might copy their work. The term of copyright was originally 14 years. Today it is around 75 years. In other words what you write, compose, paint, film, etc will not enter the public domain free of copyright, until 75 years after it was created. This represents one of the problems of copyright. It would perhaps be tolerable if the current draconian copyright laws expired for most things after 14 years since it could be argued that, if the creator had not made enough money by then they were unlikely to make anything worth justifying the blanket copyright protection.

But it looks like that isn't going to happen. In fact the 'creative' industries are rapidly becoming the 'copyright' industries and the business leaders focus more on this than fostering new talent. It is a bad deal from the point of view of the creators as well. These people actually make such a small percentage from royalties from their work that, for all but a very lucky few, it does not pay a living wage. So let's be straight about who benefits most from the current copyright laws; the large multinational companies which own, and sit on most of the copyrighted material which is of commercial value. They are not just worried about illegal downloads of music, they are probably more concerned that, in future, musicians will be able to communicate directly with their fans and sell them the music directly online without any intermediaries. Worse still for these wealthy dinosaurs, relics of the 20th century, many of these musicians distribute recordings of their work for free, making their money out of live performances and associated merchandising operations.

The fact is that copyright laws as they stand (and as they are currently proposed) are an anachronism. They will have no appreciable effect on the tide of file sharing and downloading. They will actually be counterproductive from the point of view of the copyright industry; it will not be long before the weight of injustices and infringements of liberty of innocent people begins to make itself felt. Every innocent person prosecuted, every publican, every 9-year-old child, every silver-haired old lady, every unwitting parent, every poor sod whose home wifi gets hacked into will become another chip in the Berlin Wall of copyright. Sooner or later, either public opinion or a determined individual will bring down these laws, probably in the European Court. They will then find that what little protection they have against copyright infringers is worth nothing.

The tide of technology is against them, if they want to continue in these industries they need to come up with a new business model; as Don Tapscott suggests, considering music as a service rather than a product would be a good place to start, then people would be able to pay a subscription, say £5 a month for unlimited access to as much music as they can listen to online. This would stem the tide of illegal downloads very quickly, by charging a reasonable sum for a service.

As things stand the music industry spends so much money on advertising, videos, publicity, etc. (with usually much more money and effort going into creating the video than recording the song) for a relatively small number of "artists". They are still trying to milk the public with the old 20th century model of a small number of superstars which the music industry invests heavily in to create demand for their music. This is already beginning to break down with 'new' artists like Lady GaGa already looking like lame ducks to the extent that her record company has to milk her fame as quickly as possible before the next big thing takes over. The commercial life of a popstar today is measured in months rather than years. Pretty soon the period in the spotlight will become so short that the income from sales will not justify the expenditure on publicity.

It will be the death of the music industry but the rebirth of music.


  1. Summarised: Greed.

    Nice piece, Natacha

  2. I agree as it's unjust and for the entertainments industries benefit not the artist.
    In the music industy the majors (UMG, EMI BMG/Sony and Warner) sit on the catalogues of many artist they refuse to re-issue whilst giving you the 10th compilation.