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Music Technology

“Let’s shoot the messenger!” say record labels

It’s not exactly a shock, but in the next few weeks the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) is going to change the focus of its anti-piracy activities. Instead of suing the people who actually trade songs illegally, the IFPI wants to sue ISPs. It’s a bit like suing the Royal Mail over chain letters, or BT over annoying calls from your ex.

Naturally, the IFPI really doesn’t want to do this. It would much rather sue individual file sharers and run the risk of heavy legal costs if prosecutions are unsuccessful, run the risk of suing people who can’t afford to pay anyway, and run the risk of its inflated claims for damages being exposed in court (typically the record labels want thousands of pounds per song, but the wholesale price of a single digital track is around 70p).

It’ll work like this: the IFPI will contact an ISP and say “Bobby’s file sharing. You must kill his account or we will sue you for very many pounds.” If ISPs don’t immediately cave in, they face very expensive legal action. Because they’re companies, it doesn’t matter whether Bobby is guilty or innocent; they’ll have to pay the legal costs anyway.

As you can probably guess, I’m not a fan of this move – not least because it means the IFPI no longer needs to actually prove in court that someone’s file sharing. In essence it’s extortion: kill this account or we’ll make you pay.

ISPs are mere carriers, and with some very few exceptions they shouldn’t be held responsible for the actions of their users (the exceptions are obvious wrongs such as child pornography; I agree that ISPs should block such things, but it’s up to government to mandate that). Effectively the IFPI wants to enlist ISPs as its unpaid policemen.

I’ve said before, there’s an easy answer to this: blanket licensing for file sharing. ISPs pay royalties to the record labels and in return, their users can file share to their heart’s content; ISPs would then recover the money by charging higher access fees. If you don’t want to pay those fees, your ISP blocks the relevant ports for file sharing applications, bittorrent and so on or simply applies a very low monthly bandwidth cap. Yes, that means the odd legit file sharer won’t be able to file share without paying extra, but that’s not necessarily unfair: if you’re sharing Linux ISOs or whatever you’re using serious bandwidth anyway.

There’s another answer, too: stop selling downloads with bloody DRM. Then people like me would actually buy digital downloads instead of file sharing today and then buying the CD when it finally comes out.