I warn you this is a long one….
So it’s finally happened: the IFPI has announced extensive legal actions across Europe against individuals using illegal file sharing networks to download music. The action was inevitable and European file sharers finally find themselves with the same degree of culpability as their US counterparts. To the IFPI’s credit this hasn’t been a sudden sea change in approach. With the exception of a number rather ad-hoc local actions some time ago, the IFPI has been introducing a measured and incremental approach, focusing on highlighting the legal services and warning of future consequences for illegal activity. Of course, the problem is that your average file sharer probably doesn’t read the IFPI newsletter and the action may come as a shock to some.
The more pertinent issue though is whether the music industry has the right to take action? The answer is absolutely (with a caveat – see below). Though illegal file sharing is a much smaller immediate problem than physical CD piracy (approx just 5-8% of the total population file share) its long term threat is greater. The digital youth are growing up with no understanding of music as a commodity. The perception that music is free and essentially disposable is one that spells long term danger for the music industry
The problem with file sharing is that it has become firmly embedded as a mainstream online consumer activity, when it should really be stuck in the shadowy margins in the same way that shoplifting is in the offline world. But the music industry missed a massive window of opportunity 3 years ago to license widely to legal services. Consequently illegal services filled the content vacuum and online music fans used them because they were the only source of compelling content. Indeed, our research shows that there is more demand among illegal file sharers for paid music services than among other Internet users.
But that content vacuum has now been filled by an array of compelling legal services. Online music fans no longer need to use illegal networks to get quality depth and choice online. And ultimately that gets to the crux of this action. The law suits are being taken against the serial up loaders. The people who share huge quantities of tracks and who are typically bigger advocates of file sharing than they are of music.
So legal action against individuals (along with spoofing etc) is an important strand of the music industry’s strategy to drive illegal file sharing back to the margins. Though a cynic might argue that individuals now find themselves key targets because the file sharing networks have proven so adept at evading legal recourse…which brings me to my caveat for the justification. The fact that illegal file sharing networks still proliferate and the music industry has failed to close them down via legal recourse (and millions in legal fees) suggests that the issue of the exact legality of file sharing is, at the very least, still not a closed matter. Remember that in democracies, enacting a law is only one part of the process – it also has to be implemented and supported through the judicial system. We are still currently in the process of finding out whether all aspects of the DMCA and the European Copyright Directive will remain law. These cases will move that process one step further along.
But will the action work? JupiterResearch’s consumer survey data would suggest that it won’t be an immediate panacea: only a third of file sharers in the US stated that they had reduced their file sharing as a result of the RIAA legal action. File sharing has become firmly entrenched and it will take time to dissipate. The suits will form part of a gradual process of reducing the impact of file sharing and enhancing the role of legitimate services.
Also the campaign is unlikely to be an unmitigated PR success. Any action against consumers is bound to stimulate a backlash. It’s also likely that there will be the odd case of a grand parent or child who gets a suit filed against them (as happened in the US) and these will be seized upon by the media. A final cog in the wheel (or spanner in the works depending on your perspective) is the mixed messages being given about piracy: consumers are going to wonder why they are allowed to copy music on to tape and CD but not download copies from the Internet, when both are copyright infringement. The digital youth may feel that they are getting penalized when their parents and older brothers and sisters are not only allowed to carry on with their piracy but it is at best tacitly accepted, at worst endorsed by the establishment. Physical home piracy is so firmly accepted that its paraphernalia is freely sold in high street stores: CD and DVD burners in PC World, tape to tape recorders in Currys, blank tapes and CDs in HMV (with no copying levy). Of course manufacturers and retailers would argue that they have perfectly legitimate uses, but then that is exactly what the likes of Kazaa say about their networks…