The Carter Report – Analogue suggestions for Digital Britain?

Intellectual Property Issues are at the forefront of national news after yesterday’s unveiling of Lord Carter’s “Digital Britain” report, which sets out the Government’s vision for ensuring the UK’s place as one of the world’s leading “digital knowledge economies”.

Many commentators, however, are already concerned that the Report is fundamentally flawed, setting out the importance to the economy of Broadband Access to as much of the UK as possible, but also unveiling the first set of real measures designed to clamp down on internet piracy. The reaction from the music industry in particular has been curt, describing the Report’s conclusions as “digital dithering”.

Among more headline-friendly recommendations such as a monthly 50p “broadband tax” on every home or business with a landline and cutting into the BBC’s licence fee to partly fund the national upgrade, the Report sets out a number of measures to bring internet piracy under control, including moving the responsibility for reducing unlawful filesharing to OFCOM, who will send out written warnings to illegal downloaders and release details of the identities of repeat offenders, as well as allowing ISPs to slow down the speed of broadband connections to offenders or blocking them from websites which host pirated content.

The Digital Britain report has been a long time coming and has been heavily anticipated by the Digital and Creative Industries, mainly due to the fact that they have wanted to know how the Government intends to deal with the very real and growing problem of illegal downloading.

It’s a problem which some are beginning to feel has been exaggerated by the entertainment industry but there is a very real issue which the Government has been wrestling with for some time – music, software and movie piracy now takes place primarily over the internet and the process is made a lot easier if you have a broadband connection.

Over the web, you can transfer files extremely quickly and simply, which is far more worrying to the entertainment industry than Pirate DVDs being sold in pub car parks. Illegal copies can be spread around the world in a matter of days if not hours. 20th Century Fox saw the extent of the problem recently when an unfinished DVD-quality copy of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” made its way onto the web and was downloaded over a million times before its release in cinemas. It still made over $85 Million its first weekend, but many believe that it would have made a lot more had a million people not seen it first.

Originally, the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were asked to take more responsibility for illegal downloading as they make it possible in the first place by providing a connection to the Internet. Unsurprisingly, this met with huge resistance from every ISP on the grounds that policing the activities of their users would be nearly impossible, except for Virgin, which began sending out letters warning users who were using their services to download illegally to stop.

After continuing calls from the global entertainment industry to take action, France took the first step towards what was suggested should be the solution in the UK – cutting off access to the internet for illegal downloaders after “three strikes”. This didn’t last long, however, as it was held to be unconstitutional.

The Government has said that it intends to reduce illegal filesharing by 70% within two years. This is a very ambitious, if not impossible target. Given the fact that there is still clearly a huge amount of confusion in the minds of consumers over the difference between legal and illegal downloading, warning letters will take a long time to have any effect, if indeed they do at all.

At the end of the day, a Court Order would still be needed to finally disconnect a downloader from the Web, which is costly and time-consuming, with much of the legal budget being picked up by the entertainment industries. Even then, the technology to pinpoint exactly who is using a computer to download illegally is already becoming out of date and the process is extremely slow. If you went after each individual pirate, then the cost would potentially bankrupt the creative industries and lead to a situation where they simply can’t afford to create new content.

The solution has to be in educating the public and getting the message across that if you don’t pay to download content or it’s not made clear that the download is completely free of charge, then the chances are that the owners of copyright in the content haven’t given you permission.

Under the black letter of the law, the vast majority of material available for download, legal or otherwise, is protected by copyright. If you copy or download it without permission, then either the owner of the content can sue you or you could be prosecuted. No arguments about the fairness of the entertainment industry’s price structure or the lack of availability of content are going to change this, as it is the only way for money to be made out of creativity and as such the only way the industry can survive.

Until business and pricing structures change or the Government relaxes copyright protection, then illegal downloaders are likely to meet much harsher action as record labels or movie studios start to target the audience the Government doesn’t want them to – the man in the street, rather than organised criminals. Although there’s a difference in the penalties that an occasional downloader may face, there’s no change in the legal approach – copyright infringement is, according to the report “tantamount to theft”.

What is certain is that illegal downloaders will face penalites more often, and that as the entire country moves towards being more connected, those penalties will become harsher as the entertainment industry struggles to stay in business.

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