Of Princes, Pirates and Peer-to-Peer

While Prince is famous for his eccentricities as much as for his music (I never knew how to pronounce that ♂ thing) his latest foray into the news has been more than usually self damaging. He recently launched legal attacks against some of the biggest names on the web, accusing YouTube, eBay, The Pirate Bay and some of his own ‘unofficial’ fansites, of breaching his copyright. These attempts to limit the unlicensed transfer of his material hardly seems compatible with the decision to give his latest album away ‘free’ with the Mail On Sunday back in July. If he is concerned about the level of sales he’s attaining surely giving his new album away to the entire nation for the price of a newspaper wasn’t the smartest move, and attacking your own fans is unlikely to be constructive under any circumstances. I will be watching with interest to see the effect of this giveaway was on physical and digital sales nationally and globally in comparison to Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want excercise with ‘In Rainbows’.

The prospect of success in this aim are debatable; YouTube has previously taken shelter in a ‘safe harbour’ clause of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act protecting service providers from acts committed by their users (inserted presumably to prevent the possibility of me suing BT for allowing that heavy breather to keep calling me), who must be responsible for their own actions. YouTube also apportions an amount of it’s earnings to combating copyright theft, and has a policy of removing any offending material from its site once contacted by it’s owner. The Pirate Bay takes a more impish attitude to these attacks, of which it has parried many, and it’s founders suggest that even if the site is outlawed in their native Sweden they will merely relocate and continue operating.

Whether his or any other lawsuits against sites that host user submitted content are successful or not, I think Prince et al are missing the point. Napster got taken down as the first head of the p2p Hydra back in 2000, and many other sites sprang up to take its place. While I don’t condone copyright theft or piracy in any form, the undeniable truth is that until someone designs and implements a legitimate channel covering the same breadth of catalogue and ease of access as the p2p networks there is no hope of slaying the file sharing dragon.

This said, the Spanish courts illegalised personal peer-to-peer sharing more than a year ago, introducing a small tax on media like CD-R’s and flash memory drives as a means of generating funds to compensate copyright theft victims with. and pay for policing. While I can’t imagine they’ll be able to catch many pirates, or easily calculate the value of damage done to copyright holders it is a piece of lateral thinking that I admire. Like the TV license fee levied by the UK government on behalf of the BBC it generates an income at grass roots level, enabling the enjoyment of a facility by all without specifically victimising individuals (unless they cheat the tax).

The ultimate truth that the internet has freed consumers to get their content however they choose, means that the solution to copyright theft must be to make the legitimate channels so much easier, better and more convenient to use than the illegal ones that everyone shifts over out of preference rather than the remote fear of prosecution. The people that are making efforts in this direction are the ones succeeding in the market and reaping the rewards – of which more in my next post.

Update: Warner Music Chairman echoes this sentiment.

13 Nov ’07 – Edgar Bronfman, Chairman and CEO of Warner Music Group speaks to the GSMA Mobile Asia congress: “We used to fool ourselves… we used to think our business would remain blissfully unaffected as the world of file sharing was exploding. We were wrong… By standing still or moving at a glacial pace, we inadvertently went to war with consumers by denying them what they wanted and could otherwise find… and as a result of course, consumers won. “

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