Yesterday, we reported on the new deal on net piracy between the BPI (British Phonographic Industry), the Motion Picture Association of America, and the six biggest Internet companies in the UK.
The deal obliges the web companies – BT, Orange, Virgin, Tiscali, BSkyB and Carphone Warehouse – to “work towards a significant reduction” of illegal downloading of music and films. This will be achieved, it seems, through sending letters to the most “prolific” illegal downloaders, informing them of certain legal objections to their behaviour.
After last night’s by-election catastrophe it seems harsh to stomp on the broken bones of a dying government, but it's somehow appropriate that the government was the only organisation yesterday hailing the new deal as a success and actually seeming like they meant it. Idiots.
The new deal is not a success. It’s a fudge, a cop-out and a compromise – a toothless technique for avoiding the real issues raised by downloading (illegal and otherwise), and its effect on the content industries.
Let me spell out what’s really happened here, and why the extensive coverage for this deal in yesterday’s media was a bit like suggesting a state funeral after the death of a particularly uninteresting duck:
First, as a result of downloading, the music and film industries – despite being continually advised to pack their bags and emigrate to the 21st century – are fluctuating between fits of strenuous denial and lying on the ground crying like the victims of a particularly brutal game of sudden-death hop-skotch.
They’ve been crying to teacher – or in other words, whingeing at the government.
Secondly, the government wants to do as little as possible. Or rather, it wants to make a nice, media-friendly announcement that looks as if it's doing something, while actually doing nothing at all.
In this, the government has been successful. Unlike, say, last night’s by-election.
Lastly, the internet service providers are in the unenviable position of having a toothless government sidle up to them like some kind of deranged Uriah Heep, telling them to do something, anything, to get those annoying music biz types off their back. “I mean, they keep going to the toilet and coming back talking too fast: we can’t keep up!”
Sure, the government has “threatened” legislation to deal with illegal downloading. But it’s completely obvious that ministers would rather eat their own knees than bring in actual laws making criminals out of large swathes of the otherwise law-abiding population, while at the same time severely restricting and censoring a new and hugely positive technological development that they just about appreciate but barely understand.
The internet companies have said, quite reasonably: we do not want to punish our own customers, and we shouldn’t have to act like policemen anyway.
The government has said: But…. PLEASE!
So the web companies said: Oh, alright, you sniveling little gits.
And as a result, we have this pointless "deal". To avoid the threat of legislation that might out-do even the poll tax for rank stupidity, the ISPs have agreed to do the something that is nothing. No-one knows exactly the wording of the letters they will send out to prolific downloaders, but if you read between the lines, the underlying message will certainly be this:
“Dear Valued Customer,
We are writing to gently inform you that while you were downloading 1,250,000 MP3s over the last two years from various file-sharing sites without paying a penny for them, you were…, well… how can we put this… breaking some silly old law or other.
We know! We couldn’t believe it either. Now don’t you worry, you dear valued customer, you. You lovely, cuddly, always-paying-your-steep-monthly-subscription-via-direct-debit-exactly-on-time, gorgeous and highly valued customer. Oh no. Don’t you worry about a thing.
Because, we’re not actually going to do anything about it. Not only are we not going to punish you for downloading copyrighted material without so much of a by-your-leave or eight quid off your debit card; other than sending you this carefully written and delicately-scented letter, we’re not going to actually do anything at all!
In fact, dear valued customer; oh lovely and sexy user of our service who contributes so fabulously to our staggering profits. You may wonder whether there was any point in sending you this letter at all.
And the answer is... no. There wasn’t.
So, as you were, dear, wonderful valued customer. Carry on, safe in the knowledge that despite the astonishing hype and waste of paper caused by this new ‘net piracy deal’, you can now be more certain than ever that nobody is going to stop you from downloading whatever the hell you want, however and whenever the hell you want.
A Very Large Internet Service Provider”
People will continue to download, often illegally. The music business will continue to whinge and gripe, while holding on to a completely outmoded business model and losing out massively as a result. And an intelligent debate about the effects of the internet on content, copyright and intellectual property will remain as elusive and far away as ever.
What a triumph.