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UK Govt unveils latest thinking on online music policy

MPG chairman Steve Levine (pictured) has been responding to the news that Digital Economy Act provisions to introduce legislation to block illegal file-sharing websites have been abandoned.

MPG chairman Steve Levine (pictured) has been responding to the news that Digital Economy Act provisions to introduce legislation to block illegal file-sharing websites have been abandoned, writes David Davies.

Passed by the UK Parliament amidst no little controversy in spring 2010, the DEA included scope for future legislation that would allow internet users’ access to copyright-infringing websites to be blocked. Communications regulator Ofcom has now advised that these provisions are unworkable, although the Government has not discounted the possibility of alternative measures in the future. It is also continuing to consult on measures to tackle online piracy.

The news follows hot on the heels of a recent ruling in favour of the Motion Picture Association, a trade organisation that represents Warner Bros, Fox, Disney, Paramount and other big hitters in the movie world. They sought – and gained – a court order forcing BT to prevent access to the website Newzbin2. It is thought this case could serve as a precedent for similar actions in the future.

During a briefing session held at the British Library on 3 August, business secretary Vince Cable and creative industries minister Ed Vaizey also elaborated on the practicalities of sending warning letters to alleged serial illegal downloaders – a much-delayed process that is now due to commence in 2012. In a bid to deter unwarranted appeals, the Government has decided that anyone who wishes to take issue with the letters will have to pay a fee of £20.

Cable and Vaizey also endorsed all ten recommendations made in the recent review of UK IP and copyright laws conducted by Professor Ian Hargreaves. Among other measures, the review called for the legalisation of limited private format-shifting that would allow people to copy their CDs to a computer or MP3 player.

While many in the industry have long conceded this to be an inevitable move, the Musicians’ Union and UK Music are just two of the many organisations that would like to see the introduction of an accompanying levy to benefit rights’ holders in line with that which exists in some other EU countries.

“We are not opposed to the introduction of an exception for format-shifting,” said MU general secretary John Smith, “as long as a system of fair compensation for rights’ holders is brought in alongside it. This would bring the UK in line with most other European countries, where such levy systems already exist.

“The device manufacturers readily pay for patents and the like on each device sold and yet the act of copying onto these devices the very content that the consumer is most concerned with – music – is not currently generating any income for the creative individuals who compose and perform and entertain the public.”

Ministers also expressed support for Hargreaves’ notion of a Digital Copyright Exchange that would facilitate easier and quicker clearance for the use of copyrighted content. The Government hopes to elaborate on the technicalities of the scheme before year’s end.

Responding to the latest developments, Music Producers Guild chairman Steve Levine admitted to PSNE that he is “disappointed that the Government hasn’t instigated [the blocking of file-sharing websites] because, despite what some people say, it is ever so easy to implement. It is already being done for child pornography and terrorist websites; they cannot be found easily in the UK – as is correct. The recent court case for the film industry also shows that it can be implemented successfully.

“The problem is that the music industry – and certainly my end of it – does not have the financial muscle or resources to take on companies like BT and force them to site-block.”

Isolated victories against infringement are possible, and Levine can cite one of his own from the last few months. One of his current production clients, Natalie McCool, has, says Levine, suffered “horrendously” from online piracy. He points to a recent EP that earned 47 downloads through a legitimate provider in the same short period that more than 6,000 downloads were made from an illegal site. In financial terms, this equates to approximately £3,000 in lost income – money that could have funded the next batch of sessions.

Working with BPI Anti Piracy Unit personnel, Levine was able to force the shut-down of the illegal site within a few days. But he admits that the overriding problem is seemingly intractable and “extremely depressing”, adding: “Myself and many of my producer colleagues in the industry are involved in new artist development and we really need that income to help fund sessions and generally go about the business of building a career.”

Accordingly, Levine believes that something specific on the statute would be beneficial, helping producers and artists “to generate revenue and put UK intellectual property at the forefront, with the value then coming back into the Exchequer.” In tandem with these official means, he would like to see a multi-faceted attempt to re-educate consumers about the dangers and drawbacks of illegal downloading – ranging from security threats to their computers from illegitimate sites, to the detrimental effect that poor quality files are having on the entire experience of music (“Why spend a fortune on your music player and headphones,” wonders Levine, “then sit there listening to shit?”).

Inherent in this is a paradigm shift in public attitudes that have taken root during the past decade. But drawing two parallels with earlier articles of social legislation, Levine believes that such a change is still possible.

“Just think about the seatbelt law and the ban on smoking in pubs,” he says. “As a result of those changes, it is now socially unacceptable to get into a car and not use a belt, or to light up indoors in a public space. I would like to see the same kind of feeling attached to illegal downloading.

“When people start creating music and going into rehearsal studios, they start to get interested in the craft of music. Going forward, I’d really like to see more emphasis put on the value of creating music; the idea that this is something of genuine worth.”

Image credit: Rosie Levine