Copyright debate walks the plank

Content owners ought to collaborate with ISPs. Content owners' efforts to get ISPs to disconnect customers suspected of engaging in illegal filesharing activities took a knock last week when the European Parliament voted in favor of stopping European Union legislatures from enacting laws that would ask service providers to do just that.

April 21, 2008

5 Min Read
Copyright debate walks the plank

By Steve Mullins

Content owners ought to collaborate with ISPs.

Content owners’ efforts to get ISPs to disconnect customers suspected of engaging in illegal filesharing activities took a knock last week when the European Parliament voted in favor of stopping European Union legislatures from enacting laws that would ask service providers to do just that.

Parliament members voted in favor of a cultural industries report that carried a recent amendment calling for the European Commission to avoid adopting measures “conflicting with civil liberties and human rights, and with the principles of proportionality, effectiveness and dissuasiveness, such as the interruption of internet access.” In addition, the parliament’s Committee on Culture & Education issued a comment on the vote in which it said that criminalizing consumers was not the right way to tackle digital piracy.

The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, which wants ISPs to take on fileswappers, took a swipe at the amendment, which it called “badly drafted” and “in contradiction to the rest of the text” which it said stressed the need to safeguard intellectual property.

“If the aim of the report is to protect creative content, including in the online environment, we should be looking at all options available in the fight against copyright theft,” said Frances Moore, the IFPI’s executive vice president. “Instead, this amendment suggested discarding certain options before there is even a proper debate.”

The vote by MEPs certainly strengthens the arm of opponents of such measures. And it follows a recent decision by the Swedish government to reject proposals for ISPs to terminate the contracts of customers using their internet connections to infringe copyright . In dismissing the suggestions, the country’s minister of justice and minister of culture issued a joint statement saying that copyright law should not be used “to defend old business models,” and added that existing Swedish online music and film services did little in the way of providing consumer-friendly alternatives to illegal P2P services.

And those criticisms are bang on the nail. One reason such P2P offerings took off is that they were very simple to use, with the likes of Napster easily able to popularize audio fileswapping on the internet at a time when music companies turned a blind eye to the opportunity the technology offered to improve the distribution of their products. Instead, their knee-jerk reaction was to get legal and to force these innovative newcomers out of business.

And it’s taking the music industry years to come to terms with the digital paradigm – as billions of dollars in revenue have evaporated, only in the last few months have the major labels begun to loosen their tight control over songs by allowing tracks onto the market that aren’t wrapped up in DRM protection. And there’s still a long way to go before these companies see that it really is a positive, consumer-friendly approach if they enable their customers to play the music that they’ve already paid for on the devices of their choosing.

However, the biggest drag on music industry policy is that the labels would prefer third parties to do the work for them in promoting their businesses. Not only do these outfits want governments to wade in and get ISPs to tackle problems of their own making, they want the authorities to swing the tax axe in their favor too.

Earlier this month, the UK-based Music Business Group, a music industry representative body, responded to a recommendation by the Intellectual Property Office to allow private individuals to copy songs and transfer them to devices such as MP3 players and mobile phones – so-called format shifting – a practise that is illegal. The MBG said that while technology companies derive great value from this, the creators and rights owners of the content are excluded from the value chain. It proposed instead a paid-for licensing scheme so that listeners could format shift legally.

Such a levy would be a difficult sell to the device makers who would see the retail price of their gear rise, while consumers would have to stump up for the privilege of copying music they’ve already purchased for to a portable player. It really is a no-brainer to say that a format-shifting license would be deeply unpopular.

And just as MP3-player manufacturers don’t want to carry the can for the music industry, neither do ISPs. UK internet-access provider TalkTalk recently wrote a letter to the British Phonographic Industry telling the association that its proposals for ISPs to disconnect allegedly criminal subscribers were “unreasonable and unworkable.”

“I cannot foresee any circumstances in which we would voluntarily disconnect a customer’s account on the basis of a third party alleging a wrong doing,” said Charles Dunstone, CEO of The Carphone Warehouse, the parent company of TalkTalk. “We believe that a fundamental part of our role as an ISP is to protect the rights of our users to use the internet as they choose.”

Instead of trying to coerce ISPs to do something they are fundamentally opposed to, why doesn’t the music industry work with them instead? There are precedents. Danish carrier TDC announced a new service last month offering unlimited access to music downloads to both mobile and broadband customers after doing deals with 30 labels, including three of the majors. Both parties stand to benefit, with the music companies getting paid for the use of their libraries by the telco, while TDC bolsters its communications and broadband services with attractive content that might just stop customers churning away to rivals’ offerings.

Content owners might well be advised to start looking around for further mutually beneficial relationships they can leverage rather than make more enemies.

Steve Mullins is editor of Converging Media for Informa Telecoms and Media

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