This week in the Commons has involved discussing two different types of piracy. We’ve just had a debate in the main Commons chamber on Somalia, which was actually very interesting, and on Tuesday there was a Westminster Hall debate on intellectual property.
It was led by Pete Wishart, the SNP MP who used to be in Runrig, so his focus was mainly on music copyright issues, but the contributions were fairly wide-ranging. Eric Joyce, for example, who chairs the APPG on the Digital Economy took the ‘the genie is out of the bottle’ line on downloading, saying that musicians and other artists need to find new business models. The problem is, whenever I ask people what these new business models should be, it always seems to involve 35-night stints at the 02 Arena or flogging lots of T-shirts… or maybe doing a nice little sideline in product endorsement in Japan where no-one will accuse you being a sell-0ut, or featuring in a advert for car insurance. Which is fine for U2, Coldplay and Iggy Pop, but not so good for almost everyone else.
This week I also went across to the BPI, which is based in the old County Hall, on Tuesday for a briefing on piracy/ downloading and a demonstration of how technology facilitates it. My views on this are pretty well known, but to recap…
I think format shifting where someone has bought something legitimately should be legalised. People buy an actual CD or download it, they want to be able to listen to it in the car, on their computer, on their phones, on their iPod at the gym. As I understand it, plans are being worked up by Vince Cable at BIS to allow this. It’s a bit complicated – under EU law you can bring format shifting into national law, i.e. legalise it, but only if you pay compensation to the rights holder, e.g. through a levy on blank CD-roms, iPods, etc, which then gets paid out through the usual collection services. France have a 10% levy.
So I agree with those who are arguing for format shifting to be legalised (and it’s worth noting that the BPI has never taken out any prosecutions on this).
But do I think people ought to be able to help themselves to other people’s work without permission to do so? No, I don’t. And yes, some musicians might benefit from making their work freely available, but that should be their choice; it’s not the consumers’ automatic right. Some people seem now to be asserting that all copyright is theft, that everyone should be free to access everything and that this will make for a world where everyone is listening to great music and watching great films and sharing stuff they would never otherwise have seen or heard. But it doesn’t work like that. What happens is that the Adeles of this world continue to make megabucks despite literally thousands of her albums being illegally downloaded every minute.
The demo at the BPI was illustrated by reference to Adele; it perhaps would have been more useful if it had been demonstrated by reference to a band that were just trying to break through. When you sell gazillions of albums, piracy isn’t going to put you of business. When you’re looking to sell thousands, then it will. And actually even Adele being illegally downloaded makes a difference, if it means the record company makes less money, because that’s not just less money to share with Adele, it’s less money to spend on A+R, on studio time for new bands, on investing in artists and bankrolling them through the early days until they start to show a return on that investment. Again, Adele is a bad example because you could make millions from her sales and give her millions and there would still be millions left over, but extrapolate from that down to a more earthbound level…
If you’re a purist and you think record companies are all run by ‘the Man’ and that music shouldn’t be about the music ‘business’ – which are arguments I’ve heard a lot – then what about the band doing it the old school DIY indie way, begging, borrowing and stealing to get studio time and pay for the first pressing, glueing together the sleeves, getting their art college mate to design the cover… The lads in my crowd at school had the titles and artwork for their first ten albums all sorted; they just hadn’t actually got round to picking up a guitar or writing any songs yet! These days of course the DIY-ers could just stick it out on MySpace or use Soundcloud or whatever to get the music out there, and that’s cheaper than doing it the old way, but someone still has to cough up for the studio time, the rehearsal spaces, the equipment, the van and petrol to get to gigs…
If you actually want that band to start touring and writing more songs and not having to worry about holding down day jobs, then at some point they’re going to need paying for it… and playing to 150 people and selling three T-shirts afterwards isn’t going to be enough. Some argue they should just do it for the love of it, as if creative people don’t need any reward for their work other than to see other people enjoy it. And most musicians – well, most of the ones who make decent music – aren’t in it to make money, but they doesn’t mean they don’t need to make some.
And yes, maybe it’s worth giving away free tracks (actually, no maybe about it – it is worth it) for a new band, so that they can build a fanbase. But that should be their choice. It’s their work. They’ve paid for it. In time and in money. Just because music is easier to steal than, say, furniture, doesn’t mean it’s more OK to steal it. You could argue, as many do, that piracy massively increases exposure to a band’s music and that people listen to them who would never buy their music. Although how do you assess that – for every 100 copies illegally downloaded, would that include 10 people who would otherwise have paid? 20? 30? And how does that trade off in terms of making a living out of that new acquired fanbase in future? How many T-shirts are they going to buy? As I said, it’s not your argument to make. You can’t rationalise stealing something that someone doesn’t want you to have, by saying it’s for their own good in the long run.
So what can be done about it? The BPI would suggest a few things. And yes, I know, they’re the evil ‘industry’ and if I had my way everyone in the ‘business’ would operate like Factory records and, er, lose a whole load of money but on really great things like the Blue Monday sleeve and the Hacienda… In their defence the BPI would say they represent everyone, big and small, and as I’ve already argued, the small guys get disproportionately hit harder, even if the numbers are much, much smaller.
The BPI would say, firstly, stop search engines directing traffic to illegal sites. Currently the BPI sends out something like 20,000 letters a day asking Google to take down links to illegal MP3s. (They do this based on requests from record companies, ranging from big guys to indie labels. For example, one band’s new album was recently leaked online ahead of its release date; the record company knew it would kill sales, so asked BPI to prioritise getting those links removed). Google respond – but only by removing that individual link, i.e. one letter = one track, not by delisting the site.
Secondly, some illegal sites charge, e.g. for premium download services, or maybe just at $0.15 a track, and none of that makes its way back to the artist or record company. The credit card companies need to stop, or be stopped, allowing their payment mechanisms to be taken for illegal material.
Thirdly, stop ‘reputable’ companies advertising on illegal sites. The sites I was shown included ads from Sky, BT, Thomson Holidays.
That all seems quite reasonable to me. But feel free to tell me why it isn’t.