Following last week’s announcement by Lord Mandelson that persistent file-sharers will be disconnected from the internet and a general toughening of the UK’s stance on copyright infringement over the internet, research carried out jointly by London Think Tank Demos and Media Research Specialists Ipsos Media suggests that, far from contributing to the sharp decline in the music industry’s fortunes over the past ten years, illegal downloaders actually spend more on music than other members of the public who don’t use file-sharing sites.
The headline points from the report include findings that 33% of those polled obtain music from illegal sources, 42% of file-sharers use the technology to “try before they buy” with 10% claiming that this leads to them buying a lot more music from legal sources, 61% of those polled would stop file-sharing if the measures suggested by Lord Mandelson were to be introduced and perhaps most significantly – £200m a year is spent on music by illegal downloaders and more would download legally if the price per song were to be dropped.
This research just goes to show that, while the Government have no choice but to do something about the growing problem of online copyright infringement, their current approach may be an example of taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The stereotypical view of your average illegal downloader tends to criminalise them and suggest a person who steals music, movies, games or other content without ever putting any income back into the system to support future production. This research shows that this may not be the case and that the issue may be far more complicated than the Government assumes, as well as making it very clear that going to war against filesharers may in fact do much more harm than good for the Industry in the long run, even if the majority of those polled claimed that they would stop if tougher penalties were introduced.
Amongst the widespread condemnation of Lord Mandelson’s proposals last week were a few glimmers of hope that current copyright law will be overhauled to make it more suitable for the digital age. This is long overdue, especially in areas such as format-shifting, as to keep the status quo would mean that it would remain technically illegal to copy material from a CD onto your MP3 player. Copying any content without permission and distributing it is illegal provided that it’s protected by copyright, and the vast majority of content available over the internet will be.
There’s a real tension here between the Digital Britain Report’s aim to make broadband access available to as much of the population as possible over the next few years and this new tougher approach as long as the music industry continues to rely on an old and potentially outdated business model. The argument’s been made many times that the current situation is a more technically-advanced repeat of the debate over hoe taping “killing music” in the 1980s, with many commentators claiming that it didn’t do so then and won’t now. That’s a little naïve, as we didn’t have the internet than and the ability to share files almost simultaneously across the globe, but this research seems to suggest that the comparative minority of filesharers (an estimated 7 million in the UK alone) may make up a sizable chunk of the industry’s income. Record companies could not afford to lose an estimated £200 million in a time when CD sales continue to fall.
There is always going to be debate of this kind, with even the artists holding wildly differing viewpoints (Lily Allen is a supporter of a harsher approach to online piracy, whereas Shakira believes it brings her closer to her fans) on what to do about the problem. At the end of the day, however, copyright is by far the Creative Industries’ most common asset as it allows them to control how their music is used and distributed as well as granting them the sole permission to make copies of their work. Campaigners such as the Pirate Party believe that this system should be done away with, but realistically it’s still the best way to encourage creativity even if it isn’t fit for the digital purpose.
The counterpoint to that argument is that if the Music Industry really embraced the online market and charged less as well as making more content available, then the problem wouldn’t be anywhere near as bad as it obviously is. There’s a fair amount of truth to that, as well as in the suggestion that there is a need for wholesale re-education of the public to show that you need to pay something for content which you download, even if it isn’t the current price.
We should remember, however, that this research only polled 1000 people and that the majority would stop downloading if tougher measures were introduced. Until the Government and the Music Industry figures out how to exploit the huge audience for content distributed over the internet with legislation which makes it easy to do so, then things are going to get worse before they get better and it will only be after the Digital Economy Bill becomes law in April next year and the first Filesharers begin to be disconnected that the real battleground will begin to be drawn. The ultimate casualty may be some of music’s most ardent fans, who tend to use the web to discover new music. As long as they become willing to pay for that discovery then everything should eventually work itself out, but only then after a very public scrutiny over how the Music Industry makes its money.