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The Digital Economy Bill: an engineer/producer’s view

The Dig­i­tal Econ­o­my Bill now being rushed through the UK Par­lia­ment is, in my view, a dis­as­ter area of lack of under­stand­ing of the issues.

Ordi­nary peo­ple risk dis­con­nec­tion from the Inter­net — accu­rate­ly described recent­ly as “the fourth util­i­ty”, as vital as gas or elec­tric­i­ty to mod­ern life — with­out due process; sites could be blocked for legit­i­mate users because of alleged infring­ing con­tent. These are just some of the like­ly effects of the Dig­i­tal Econ­o­my Bill now being rushed through Par­lia­ment in advance of the elec­tion. And Swedish research indi­cates that mea­sures of this type do noth­ing to reduce piracy.

Pirates will imme­di­ate­ly use prox­ies and oth­er anonymis­ing meth­ods to con­tin­ue what they’re doing: only ordi­nary peo­ple will be affect­ed. It’s quite like­ly that WiFi access points like those in hotels, libraries and cof­fee shops will close down because their own­ers will not want to be held respon­si­ble for any alleged infringement.

This bill will not solve any prob­lems for the indus­try — in fact it’ll cre­ate them. Sup­pose you send a rough mix to a col­lab­o­ra­tor using a file trans­fer sys­tem like YouSendIt. It’s a music file, so pack­et snif­fers your ISP will be oblig­ed to oper­ate will, while invad­ing your pri­va­cy at the same time, encour­age the assump­tion that it’s an infringe­ment. And you may not be able to access YouSendIt in the first place because UK access has been blocked as a result of some­one else’s alleged infringements.

Sup­pose you run an inter­net radio sta­tion. In the UK that requires two licens­es, one from PRS (typ­i­cal­ly the Lim­it­ed Online Exploita­tion Licence or LOEL), and the oth­er a Web­cast­ing licence from PPL. Part of what you pay for the PPL licence is a dub­bing fee that allows you to copy com­mer­cial record­ings to a com­mon library. You might do that in “the cloud” so your DJs — who may be across the coun­try or across the world — can playlist from it, using a ser­vice like Drop­Box. How will the author­i­ties know that your music files are there legal­ly? Do you seri­ous­ly think they’ll check with PPL? Of course not. It’ll be seen as an infringe­ment, and your inter­net access could be blocked first, and ques­tions asked after­wards. You’re off the air and bang goes your busi­ness. Or you may have already lost access to your library because some­one thinks some­one else has post­ed infring­ing mate­r­i­al to the same site.

Worst of all, the bill is being rushed through Par­lia­ment with­out the debate need­ed to get prop­er­ly to grips with the issues.

The bill as it stands will threat­en the growth of a co-cre­ative dig­i­tal economy.

The indus­try bad­ly needs to review its posi­tion. We’ve known since the Warn­ers Home Tap­ing sur­vey in the ear­ly 1980s that the peo­ple who buy music are the peo­ple who share music.  In my view a busi­ness strat­e­gy that makes your cus­tomer the ene­my is not a good one.

The pop­u­la­tion at large believes that a lot of the fig­ures for ille­gal file trans­fer are con­jured out of thin air — a recent report claimed that a quar­ter of a mil­lion UK jobs in cre­ative indus­tries would be lost as a result of pira­cy where in fact there are only 130,000 at present. This does not look good.

The indus­try has a his­to­ry of tak­ing the wrong posi­tion on new tech­nol­o­gy. Gramo­phone records would kill off sheet music sales and live per­for­mance. Air­play would stop peo­ple buy­ing records (how wrong can you be?). And so on. The indus­try atti­tude to new tech­nol­o­gy seems to be “How do we stop it?” We should instead be ask­ing “How do we use this tech­nol­o­gy to make mon­ey and serve our customers?”

The indus­try is chang­ing. More and more record­ings are being made by indi­vid­u­als in small stu­dios col­lab­o­rat­ing across the world via the Inter­net. Sales are increas­ing­ly in the “Long Tail” and not in the form of smash hits from the majors. Instead of the vast major­i­ty of sales being made through a small num­ber of dis­tri­b­u­tion chan­nels con­trolled by half-a-dozen big record com­pa­nies, they’re increas­ing­ly being made via indi­vid­ual artists sell­ing from their web sites and at gigs; small online record com­pa­nies like; and so on. It’s impos­si­ble to count all those tiny micro-out­lets, and they are not even record­ed as sales in many cas­es — mak­ing report­ed sales small­er, which is labelled the result of pira­cy when it’s in fact an inabil­i­ty to count — yet this is exact­ly where an increas­ing pro­por­tion of sales are com­ing from. I’ve seen some research from a few years ago even sug­gest­ed that there was actu­al­ly a con­tin­u­al year-on-year rise of around 7% in music sales and not a fall at all. And indeed the lat­est offi­cial fig­ures from PRS for Music (of which I’m a mem­ber, inci­den­tal­ly) show that legal down­loads are more than mak­ing up for the loss of pack­aged media sales — and bear in mind that these num­bers may increas­ing­ly ignore the vast major­i­ty of those Long Tail outlets.

I don’t have all the answers to what we should be doing as an indus­try. It’s a time of change as fun­da­men­tal as the intro­duc­tion of the print­ing press. The scribes are out of a job — but the print­ers will do well once they get their act togeth­er. Right now we’re in between the old world and the new, and every­thing is in flux — we don’t know quite what is going to happen.

What I am sure of, how­ev­er, is that mak­ing our cus­tomers the ene­my is not the way to go. We have to find answers that use the new tech­nol­o­gy to advance our busi­ness and serve our cus­tomers, and not pre­tend that we can force the old ways to return, because if we do, we will all lose.

The Dig­i­tal Econ­o­my Bill in its cur­rent form actu­al­ly stran­gles the Dig­i­tal Econ­o­my — some­thing we need to help pull us out of reces­sion — rather than sup­port­ing it. It stems from old-age think­ing and lack of under­stand­ing of the tech­nol­o­gy and its oppor­tu­ni­ties. It should not be allowed to be rushed through Par­lia­ment. Instead it needs an enlight­ened re-write that acknowl­edges what is real­ly going on in the world and how we can make it work for us.

If you agree with me, please write to your MP and join in the oth­er pop­u­lar oppo­si­tion now tak­ing place.