Music industry's sour note on file sharing


It’s ironic that the music industry is whinging on about file sharing when it started it all with the digitisation of music, writes BRIAN BOYD

WHEN U2 manager Paul McGuinness addressed the music industry at the Midem Festival in Cannes two years ago he used the opportunity to make a robust and trenchant speech which garnered headlines around the world.

One of the few leading music managers to bother to engage with the elephant in the music world room (file sharing and its consequences), McGuinness called on governments to compel internet service providers (ISPs) to introduce mandatory “three strikes and you’re out”, internet service disconnections of serial file-sharers. He accused Apple, Google, Yahoo, Facebook and others of “building multibillion dollar industries on the back of our content without paying for it” and of being “makers of burglary kits who have made a thieves’ charter to steal music from the music industry”. Since his speech, governments in Ireland, France and Britain have introduced the “three strikes” law. The music industry now refers to his speech as a “turning point” and the ISPs – well, they just shrugged their shoulders and went back to counting their profits.

McGuinness has returned to the subject in an interesting essay in the current edition of GQ magazine. It’s a well-informed, analytical piece which uses a judicious amount of facts and figures to imagine a new model economy for the whole entertainment world. The problem is that his argument is flawed in key basic areas.

This might sound wilfully pedantic but anyone who uses the term “theft” or “stealing” to refer to file sharing is not only being factually and legally incorrect but committing what the philosopher Gilbert Ryle would refer to as a “category mistake”.

Intellectual property (which is what music is) is not physical property. When the labels erroneously claim that file sharing an album is the same as going into a record shop and stealing an album they are talking nonsense. When I steal from the record shop, I have something and they don’t. When I share files I am taking from an infinite supply – the label is not minus one album. The sharing of such property is not theft but a violation of an artificial legal concept. Check out what two Nobel Prize winners, FA Hayek and Milton Friedman, have to say about the difference between conventional property rights and intellectual copyright. Yes, it may seem like hair-splitting but the point is that incorrect terms such as “theft” and “stealing” need to be decommissioned before you can meaningfully address the current crisis.

The second flaw in McGuinness’s argument is the blame he attributes to the “commercial agenda of powerful technology and telecoms industries” for the music industry’s decline (by providing high broadband speeds these companies facilitate, and do nothing to prevent, widescale file sharing).

In so many words he pardons the music industry itself for its approaching soon-to-be obsolescence. That’s an egregious observation.

The music industry has been portraying itself as the innocent victim throughout the Napster and what-happened-next years – only raising its head from the sand long enough to drag some teenager into court. The reality is that it is the architect of its own downfall.

File sharing is only possible because it was the industry itself which digitised music with the creation of the CD format. While the record companies were busy flogging old catalogue at exorbitant prices on the “must have” new format, computer experts were telling them that what they had just done meant that the old threat of “home taping is killing music” would, because of how simple it is to disseminate digital files on a computer, return with a vengeance and decimate them. No one listened.

Shawn Fanning began this process when he put the first shareable MP3 file up on Napster in 1999. Apres Fanning, the deluge. The genie was out of the bottle and it is never going back in again. You can throw all the Spotifys, all the laughably unworkable government legislation (throw someone off the internet? – is that some surreal metaphysical joke by the Irish, British and French governments) you want at the situation, but file sharing is here and never going away. You’d have more luck trying to outlaw gravity.

It’s a good 25 years since the advent of digital music, 11 years since Napster MP3 files on the internet and still all the music industry does is cry: “it’s not fair”. The problem is bigger than the labels, the publishers, the ISPs and the mobile phone companies combined.

There are government departments and ministries for fisheries, tourism and sport but none singularly dedicated to the current, red-hot and enormously important area of the internet and copyright.

It’s of serious socio-economic importance – for this country particularly (and not just for the music world but for the film and literary worlds) to rewrite existing copyright laws immediately to acknowledge the existence of file sharing and its far-reaching legal and ethical consequences.

Until then, this ship of fools sails on.

Brian Boyd’s music column, Revolver, appears in The Ticketeach Friday

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