The Pirate Party v Peter Mandelson v The British Public: The Crackdown on Illegal Downloading Begins

Online filesharing – downloading and sharing music with other internet users without permission from either a Record Label or the Artist – has been a hot topic in the Press for some time, with research claiming that there could well be over 7 million illegal filesharers in the UK. The Music Industry and the Government has now been forced to acknowledge the scale of the problem, which many claim is now beginning to seriously affect the UK’s ability to launch new artists and for them to have a successful career as well as putting a serious dent in the fortunes of established artists, who are increasingly seeing their new releases previewed on the Web before release.

For some time, the Government has been looking for a solution to the problem after louder and louder demands from the Music Industry to do something about the problem. The most obvious target has been Internet Service Providers, who the Industry claims should do more to curtail the sharing of music files between their users. Virgin and several other UK Internet Businesses such as Talk Talk have already come out on the side of the artists (perhaps understandably in Virgin’s case given Richard Branson’s history in the Music world), promising either to block “peer to peer” or “P2P” software or to send out letters to their users to force them to stop. 

The Government’s recent “Digital Britain” Report places a huge amount of importance upon dealing with the problem, but still fell short of expectations from Rights Owners. Now, however, the debate over filesharing is very much back in the political agenda with the announcement that the “Pirate Party”, a political body looking to legalise non-commercial downloading, will contest seats in the next General Election.

The Pirate Party entering UK politics has only been a matter of time since its Swedish counterpart won a seat in the European Parliament in June this year. It’s perhaps an indication of how strongly the public feels about the issue that the Telegraph has reported this weekend that around a hundred people an hour are joining the Party, who want to balance the public and music industry’s interests by legalising non-commercial downloading whilst ensuring that Artists receive a fair financial reward for their creativity.

However, they’re saying this against the background of their claim that the current period of copyright protection for musical works of 50 years should be reduced. This goes directly against the Artists’ position, and against the notable public claims by bands who had their first hits at the birth of modern Pop Music in the 1950s (including Cliff Richard) that copyright protection should in fact be extended to allow them to earn royalties from their material well into their old age via new technologies such as iTunes. This is an argument that has found some favour in Europe, where proposals to extend the period of protection from 50 to 70 years are already underway.

What the Pirate Party has done and will do is to highlight the debate over filesharing and drag it into the political arena. It’s interesting to note that the Business Secretary Lord Mandelson has apparently indicated this weekend that he is now coming round to the idea of tougher sanctions for illegal downloading, which could in theory include a maximum fine of up to £50,000 and the restriction of internet access. The Digital Britain report placed making broadband available to as much of the UK Population as possible at the heart of this recommendations, and this may be a sign that access may come at a price as the Government takes some of the more stringent action that the Music Industry demanded before the report was published in the wake of a consultation on the report’s findings.

Lord Mandelson’s apparent new approach fits in with the Government’s aim to protect the UK’s “knowledge economy” and ensure the survival of the music industry, but not all of the Artists agree with him, notably Thom Yorke of Radiohead, who has suggested that listeners download due to an absence of “good music” on mainstream radio and Chris Martin of Coldplay, who has said in the past that the traditional arrangement of being signed to a major label is “like living in your grandparents’ house……[the standard major label approach] is obviously an antiquated model because of the internet.” Lily Allen, however, believes firmly that the public should have to pay for their music and that “there’s no money going to bands any more.”

We’ve seen high-profile trials in the US over the course of the past few months with a mother-of-four and a student being forced to pay a combined total of over $2 million for downloading a relatively small number of songs (although they were portrayed as “habitual offenders” who had downloaded hundreds in the past). This could be the long-awaited start of the crackdown in the UK and it’s probably only going to be a matter of time before the first major case against a member of the public rather than a commercial downloader gets underway.  

However, a tougher approach may well turn the Public against the idea that musicians are struggling (especially as the credit crunch continues to bite) and it would be far more useful to look at the way in which the older business models that depend upon the sales of CDs can be abandoned to allow the music world to really embrace the new digital arena and make more material available for legal download, which many believe is a big part of the problem. The Beatles, for example, are a major hold-out in this area.

The other key approach will be to really educate the British public on why this is such a problem. The fact is that the law is the law, regardless of whether the public likes it or not – if you download illegally, you infringe copyright and that infringement can lead to civil and criminal penalties. However, if the Government attacked the problem in the same was as they have with the Movie Industry, more and more people may well be willing to pay for their downloads if they learn to appreciate that this problem is having a profound effect upon the music which makes up the soundtrack to their lives.

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