Why the Digital Economy Bill won’t work

The Digital Economy Bill attempts to outlaw music file sharing; it threatens to take away people’s right to use the Internet if they consistently download music and/or movie files without paying for them. Is this right? Does it protect the rights of musicians and actors whose income is being jeopardised by pirate file sharing on the Internet? The industry is divided on the matter.

Some think it is necessary to protect the creative rights of copyright holders who depend on sales of their work to make a living. There are those who argue that draconian measures are called for to protect the “creative industries” from this large-scale theft and loss of income.

So, is this knee-jerk reaction ‘fair dos?’ Research by the think tank Demos found that people who download music from file sharing sources spend more on average on legitimately purchasing music than those who obtain music only from legitimate sources. The Internet is awash with new music: it has to be. Musicians need to build up a following and get their recordings heard.

Eventually bands and artists get to a point where they want to go full time and to spend their time being creative, making music, writing songs, without the impediment of having to go out and do a job to pay the rent. This is where it becomes difficult. The record labels used to take on new artists and give them a living by signing them up to a contract. This rarely happens these days. Sales of CDs have plummeted; plastic music has been substantially replaced by digital music.

The other thing to note is that the total value of live music sales has now overtaken the total value of sales of recorded music. You can’t download the live experience. Seeing a band and being in an audience with like minded fans is one of the most exciting and satisfying experiences of modern life and far outweighs the value of listening to tracks on an i-Pod. Of course, it’s the pre-recorded music that in all probability has created the demand for the gig tickets and this precisely why the record labels should take the pain of the £200m loss on file sharing, simply because there is a bigger prize to be won from the music loving public.

Bands making new and original music have to give away their music in order to create a following for it. There comes a point however when a band has become established when selling songs becomes a realistic proposition. Many bands these days would say they do not need record labels; they can be their own label and sell their music directly via i-Tunes – they don’t need record labels to do this for them.

Controlling the Internet might not be the solution. The freedom of the Internet has both its winners and its losers. It might well be true that the record industry is loosing £200 million a year from illegal downloads. As Billy Bragg said: “It’s the record labels that are dying on their feet”. They are not dying because of file downloads; they are dying because they do not want to change the way they operate. They are run by old-style conservatives who do not want to change or keep up with the times. Louis Walsh believes that talented musicians need “The Big Machine” to get them on to the mass media. He would say that wouldn’t he – being one of the owners of the x-factor brand. It’s easy to understand the rage there is against that machine.

A lot of these problems will go away when the big corporate machines stop trying to own artists. There are too many corporate suits who want to get rich at the expense of the people they control. Ok this has been the reality of popular music for the past 70 years. Labels have made big money out of artists. The Internet offers a way out of that maze of vested interests. The more you try to control the Internet, the harder people will try to get round the controls. Control solves one problem but immediately creates another.

Surely the better approach is to concentrate on the technology of locking music recordings into highly encrypted packages that only a payment can unlock. Technology exists that is capable of creating an un-copyable CD and an un-hackable digital distribution source. If the government want to help the creative industries to get their money back from their work, let the Government fund the research and technology development that will make digital copyright protection a reality. A reality in which any kind of creative effort can be securely locked into a format which is un-copyable. The Government have got it wrong – it’s not the “creative industries” that are losing money – it’s only the record industry moguls that are having their power taken away. File locking is one thing but there is another way.

The government has never had a problem funding the BBC via a licence fee. Millions have to pay for the BBC to be creative whether they want to watch it or not. Presumably they could fund the creative industries by a tax on Broadband usage, so that those who use the greater bandwidth pay more for it and the money goes to fund the artists they want to listen to. Sounds a much more beneficial approach to me than trying to police the un-policable.

When it comes to the Internet, people should be given what they want. A basic service should be free to those needing only a basis amount of use. Those who want more, should pay. A generation has grown up which places no monetary value on music; all music is free. Kids cannot see that it costs anything to make recorded music. Even 99p is too much to pay to hear a tune. They want to hear the music but they do not want to pay for it. If they are downloading songs from the back catalogue of great bands because they want a musical education, then that is a good thing. We all want to listen to the songs that represent the roots of modern music. But let’s get the file sharing companies to pay for that education. Let’s engage the bit torrenters in educating their users about the economic realities of music and why it is not produced free of charge.

In the old days people would happily put a 10p into a juke-box in a bar and listen to a track being played. People would often spend a pound or two playing their favourite songs. All we need now is the digital equivalent of the juke-box and a micro payments system that will work on the Internet or the mobile phone. That however needs to be backed up with some educational work to help people to understand why it costs money to record music.

On balance I think I side with the musicians like Billy Bragg who reject the government’s solution as being misguided and failing to see the bigger picture. What we need to change is not how people use the Internet but the way that the music industry is organised.