BBC widens debate on Internet piracy

The BBC's investigative news programme Panorama last night highlighted the implications of the Digital Enterprise Bill to the computer using public.

Concentrating on two households - one populated by a young family with a brace of tech-savvy kids ranging from gangly teens to toddlers, the other a typical student flatshare - the programme attempted to point out the consequences of the bill to real people.

Presenter Radio One DJ Jo Whiley invited a digital forensics expert to footle about with the family's various computers to find out exactly what the kids were up to and there were few surprises (apart from the fact that the teenage boy's hard drive was miraculously free of porn).

All of the kids, with the exception perhaps of the toddler, were regularly and illegally downloading music, movies and television programmes using P2P services like Bit Torrent and Limewire and, although they were aware that what they were doing was wrong, were utterly nonplussed about any possible consequences.

But it was perhaps the attitude of the parents which was most illuminating. "We're not computer literate," said the hapless mum, "so we don't really know what they're doing. They're not downloading porn or anything, so that seems to be OK."

The parents, both of whom relied heavily on their broadband connections for work, also seemed to be unaware that government plans would mean that the illegal activities of their children could lead to their Internet connection being cut off, or at the very least hobbled.

The student household, the denizens of which were all regular freeloaders, was equally clueless. One said that he didn't use the likes of iTunes for two reasons. Firstly he would have to use his parents credit cards in order to get access, and secondly that each song would cost around 79p on average, which he described as "a bit ridiculous".

The producers of the programme then conducted an experiment in which the student's broadband connection was throttled back in the same way the Government is proposing for persistent offenders reported by Big Media.

"We're trying to work at home and we just can't do it," said one housemate. "The plan was to throttle back the speed in the first instance and then cut you of at a later stage. Essentially we have been cut off with this throttle back. We can't do anything. We can't even really open emails."

Another said, "I don't see how this is a way forward. It kind of just ruins your life."

But if the BPI and other self-interested organisations which are currently aggressively lobbying the Government to introduce draconian measures get their way, restricted access could become a reality for thousands of households.

Forcing ISPs to reveal the personal details of file-sharing households could soon become a reality, but not if one outspoken ISP boss has anything to do with it.

Talk Talk boss Andrew Heaney has long been a vocal opponent of the proposed measures and thinks the powers that be need to take a long hard look at the realities of the bill. "The Government has solely looked at what the music and film companies want and they've ignored the reality of the Internet," he told Whiley. "At the end of the day there is nothing that we can do. We provide a pipe onto the Internet and without shutting off the entire [network] you can't stop people illegaly file sharing. We're very happy to work with [rights holders] to find other solutions, the problem is that they have focused all of their efforts on trying to lobby Government, and lean on Government to come up with this oppressive regime."

Asked if he would toe the Government line and excommunicate offenders based on evicence supplied by industry lawyers, Heaney was adamant: "If the secretary of State requires someone to be cut off, we will refuse unless a court has actually taken the decision that that subscriber did something wrong and they are guilty."

BPI boss Geoff Taylor attacked non-compliant ISPs like Talk Talk, saying, "I think it's a shame that some ISPs are taking such a negative approach. Just trying to be a dumb pipe and pretending that you have no responsibilities for anything that happens on your network, firstly we think that's morally wrong, but secondly we think it's unsustainable as a business model."

Taylor then went on to say, "I think there are some positive signs. Singles are doing very well. Even digital albums are showing growth. But it's a fraction of what it should be. Many more tracks are being illegaly downloaded than are being paid for and ultimately that's not sustainable."

Which is a remarkably ill-informed attitude. Trying to equate every single illegal download with a tangible financial loss for the music industry just bolsters the naivety of the people trying to steamroller these measures through Parliament.

Some file sharers will download hundreds, if not thousands of files a week. The likelihood of them listening to all of those music tracks is tiny. The likelihood that they would have paid for every single one of those tracks had they not been available for free is infinitesimal. Either the music industry is utterly ignorant, or they think our politicians are. They may have a point.

The bottom line is that downloaded music is still too expensive. Most people would be willing to pay for artists' work if the knew that the cash was going into the pockets of the people with the talent who actually write and perform the music. The sad fact of the matter is that the vast majority of the 79p you pay each time you download a track from iTunes never gets anywhere near anyone with any creativity. It buys Simon Cowell a new Bentley. Or allows music company executives to swan around the world in private jets riding on the sweat and honest toil of hard-working musicians.

It's also interesting to note that illegal file sharers actually contribute far more to music industry coffers than their law-abiding peers. One survey conducted by Davos showed that 42 per cent of illegal downloaders were actually listening to their ill-gotten tunes with a view to buying the real deal, and that P2P pirates spent £77 a year on average on properly-acquired music compared to just £44 shelled out by those who comply with copyright laws.

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So it's not enough to have written a few tunes in the 70s and sit back and expect the royalty checks to come pouring in any more. I once worked with a young journalist whose father had become quite wealthy because he discovered the Flying Pickets. He didn't spend years living out of a Transit van, gigging night after night, honing his craft and paying his dues. He just found them singing in a pub and helped them record a cover of an Alison Moyet song. And then sat back and watched the money roll in.

It's an unfortunate fact that musicians will have to work a little bit harder on a world where music has been democratised by the Internet, commercial radio and streaming services like Spotify. Music fans spent £1.4 billion on live music last year and it's widely expected that future financial models for successful bands will have to include playing live.

The Featured Artists Coalition, a group of musicians united by a common cause, contributed to the programme by arguing that the old record company model was outdated and unnecesary. Lefty folk-punk troubadour Billy Bragg argued that anyone wanting to make money out of their musical talent could do so without being enslaved by globalised corporations. "All you have to do is find a thousand people on the Internet who are willing to give you a fiver, and you've got a pretty good career going," he said.

Mark Kelly from Marrillion also pointed out that his band (they were a bit like Peter Gabriel era Genesis... but without the Genesis songs or Peter Gabriel) had released four albums with no record industry interference or cash whatsoever, asking their army of loyal fans to pay for the production costs up front.

Hal Ritson of the Young Punx (no idea here either) said: "The new music industry might shape into something different. You might find that a successful musician isn't somebody with a million cars and a mansion who is known worldwide. It might be someone with a loyal global fanbase who makes a living, but they're not a superstar."

All this was said in a round-table discussion with a number of other musicians, including Pink Floyd's drummer Nick Mason who sat stony-faced throughout, no doubt wishing he was back in his mansion surrounded by his millions of cars.

Although the Panorama episode didn't come to any striking conclusions, we reckon it was a pretty important piece of broadcasting for two reasons.

Firstly, it was the first prime-time TV programme to bring attention to the Digital Enterprise Bill which is quite possibly the biggest threat to Internet freedom ever put before parliament. Let's hope at least some of the MPs who will be voting on the bill watched the show and will use the information contained within it to balance the hysterical nonsense spouted by billionaire record execs.

Secondly, it gave Billy Bragg the chance say the most sensible sentence anyone has ever uttered about the possibility of filesharers having their Internet connections taken away.

"It's a bit like going around to everyone's house and taking away their record players, then complaining cos no-one is buying records," he said. The man is a genius. You should go and download all of his songs right now. And pay for them, of course.