Digital Britain- It Could Be A Great Piracy Experiment

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The UK government’s proposed crackdown on ilegal copying could make a perfect test of the music industry’s assumptions, says Peter Judge

Faced with a dispute between fractious children, a wise parent will offend both. Offer a compromise between the two which stops well short of either party’s demands, and they’ll be so disappointed they might work it out between themselves.

That’s probably not a good analogy, but Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report may have done something like that on the issue of copyright infringement. If nothing else, since neither side is satisfied, then it’s clear that neither side has won, and the government has not caved in to either party.

A promise that UK citizens will be doing 70 percent less illegal copying in two years’ time ought to be good news for the music industry but – of course – the industry isn’t satisfied. It never will be.

The music business wants a “three strikes” rule like that proposed in France, to cut off the access of apparent infringers. But even that wouldn’t be enough,  because the technology would still exist, and these heartless file sharers might use other avenues, or carry on copying CDs somewhere.

The only thing that might satisfy Big Music would be to have digital file sharing technologies completely stamped out… except for its own use, of course. Then it could take advantage of the savings those technologies make in its own production and distribution of content, and not pass the savings on.

By contrast, the complaints of the ISPs seem more reasonable. They don’t want to pay the cost of frisking all Internet users for content that might be illicit (and then handling the correspondence to prove their case). Transport for London would make a similar complaint, if the Metropolitan Police demanded that bus drivers search all passengers for hammers and chisels, that might be used in burglary.

The target of reducing illicit file-sharing by 70 percent seems arbitrary, but could be an interesting one to watch and monitor. To operate this target, Ofcom will first have to get a good picture of how much illicit file sharing is going on, and then – with the ISPs’ co-operation – measure how much that figure goes down.

Assuming it is possible to get those measurements, we would then (for the minor cost of part of our privacy) have an opportunity to test, pragmatically, the music industry’s assumptions. If copyright infringement really is equivalent to theft, and every illicitly copied file represents money stolen from the industry, and the industry can put a monetary value on that traffic, then we can test the results of reducing it.

If the music industry’s model holds water, then a 70 percent reduction in file-sharing ought to result in an equivalent increase in music revenues. If it doesn’t, then there is something wrong with the industry’s assumptions.

Whatever reduction is actually achieved, let’s compare that with the industry’s revenue charts – and test just how much file-sharing really hurts the industry. Some people would suggest that less file-sharing would actually mean less awareness of music and fewer download sales. If they are right, then industry revenue would actually go down.

Unfortunately, of course, this is more than an experiment. It takes place in the real world, with real effects. Whether or not the crack-down works, it will probably put up the cost of broadband, to pay for the scanning and correspondence.

I expect an ISP will soon work out for us whether this cost will be more than the 50p fast broadband tax, though there might be some savings if ISPs no longer need to buy bandwidth for illicit file-sharers. Anyway, it’s one of the planks of the Digital Britain report that cheaper broadband will help the economic recovery, so making it more expensive would be a bad idea.

And the music industry is a potential source of revenue and growth in the new digital economy. If the measures turn out to preserve a situation where the industry is allowed to delay and compromise that digital economy, then it won’t be good for Britain’s recovery either.

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