There are proposals afoot to ban Internet users who “illegally” download copyrighted content, mainly music or video. Paul McGuinness, manager of U2, made a speech recently, recommending a “three strikes and you’re out” policy. And the BBC has reported today on British government moves to introduce such legislation.
This proposal is absurd for several reasons.
First, it is impractical: the technical difficulties are immense. Seeking to track down music or video downloads amid the torrent of information being communicated around the Internet at any one moment is hard. Determining that that content is “illegal” would be virtually impossible. And then, connecting that downloaded content to a single user would be even harder again.
Second, where is the motivation for the ISPs, since they would take on the burden but not the gains from preventing illegal downloads? If the music industry challenges them with legal writs, it could shut down the entire Internet.
Third, there is the moral and legal arguments. Who has the right to prevent someone using the entire Internet just based on the fact that they misuse (and even that is debatable) one part of it? If challenged for proof, no ISP could definitively identify an individual to target and may end up barring innocent users too.
Fourth, even if they were “banned”, it would be so easy to get around that it would make the ban practically irrelevant. Users would only need to transfer to the nearest Internet café, change ISP, or operate behind a firewall, and their access would be instantly restored.
So if the idea of banning Internet users based on their supposed infringement of copyright is being mooted, despite the practical and legal difficulties, there must be an overriding reason for attempting it nevertheless. That reason is profit: enormous, huge, outlandish profit.
The twentieth century must have seemed like a dream world for the music industry. They could develop music acts, record them, and sell physical copies for vastly inflated prices. The disparity between the cost of the physical object being sold and the price was always argued to be justified based on the costs of the intellectual rights. The “artist” had to be developed, promoted, given the best recording equipment and so on. Or so it was argued.
But let us stand back from some of the hidden assumptions of the arguments.
Artists (and record companies) do not have the right to make inflated profits. Where did they ever get the idea that being good at belting out a couple of songs entitled them to immense rewards? Hundreds of millions of dollars in some cases. No one does. They only got these rewards because of the accidental, contingent properties of the music distribution business in the middle of the twentieth century. The record companies controlled the production of physical recordings (via vinyl, tape, and CD) and so could charge what they liked. But now that digital music has made these formats redundant, the once-off accident has disappeared. They have lost control of their music. Once it has gotten out into the open, on the Internet or elsewhere, it is virtually impossible for them to prevent millions of illegal downloads and copying.
But to see this as a problem to be tackled is to be limited in vision. It is an outdated mode of thinking about music and content distribution. We cannot turn back the clock on technology. The genie is out of the box.
The music industry’s money-making model has to change. They need to accept that the music itself is going to be harder to justify selling at a premium. Premium services – such as iTunes – will still be capable of charging for songs, based on the ease of use and high quality. Bands and acts will have to flip their thinking too – they will be selling their music cheaply, as a promotion for their live acts. They can still charge for use of the music in film, as advertising, or through radio and TV. They can still make money, just less of it.
The record companies will be falling over themselves to prevent this happening. But it is a losing battle. It is only the dinosaurs of the old music industry – Paul McGuinness of U2 being the prime example – who will still try to resist the inevitable.