Thursday, 19 November 2009

Pirates and Parliament

Memo to self... must blog more often! Anyway, here's notice of an event being held in Parliament next week, which may be of interest to some people who have been Twittering about the Digital Economy Bill. I assume it's only open to members of the APPG, but thought people might like to know it's happening. I'm going to try to go along, or send a researcher at least.


Janet Anderson MP invites you to a joint meeting of the All-Party Intellectual Property Group, the All-Party Group on Publishing, the All-Party Music Group, the All-Party Film Group and the All-Party Writers’ Group - Tuesday 24th November 2009 from 15.00 to 16.30 hrs

The meeting will hear from people whose livelihoods depend on the protection of Intellectual Property online and how the Digital Economy Bill could best help protect jobs and community projects across the country.

Speakers include:
Huw Jennings, Fulham FC’s Academy Director
Francis Keeling, Universal Music Group
Joan Smith, Writer and Journalist
Fionnuala Duggan, Publisher, Random House
Paul Hayes, Construction Manager, Leavesden Film Studios

As I've mentioned on this blog before, I had a long chat with Feargal Sharkey at a dinner at Labour Conference, about the file-sharing/ illegal downloading issue. He's obviously speaking from the music industry viewpoint, and he was at pains to stress that this isn't about protecting the Coldplays, Lily Allens and Radioheads of the world. It's about new artists trying to make it, and artists who have been around for years and never quite had their big break, who rely on royalties to scrape a living doing what they love. I challenged Feargal on this: surely file-sharing and downloading for free actually helped these bands get established, by making more people aware of the work and building an audience? Or by allowing a new audience to discover the work of older bands who are still out there plugging away on the gig circuit? (In my day it was all about taping stuff off the John Peel show, tacitly encouraged by Peelie's obstinate refusal to talk over the intros or endings of songs unlike his Radio 1 colleagues who tended to blather on regardless). But Feargal said it doesn't work like that, that it actually hits such artists pretty hard. And surely they have a right to be paid for their work, and to have copyright protection?

Some might argue that the genie is out of the bottle, that illegal downloading/ file-sharing is here to stay, that 'consumers' rights are more important than those of the industry. I suppose my view is coloured by being rather keener on music produced by independent artists/ record labels, so when I think of buying a record I think - showing my age here! - in terms of keeping the likes of Factory or Rough Trade or Postcard going (which, it could be argued, was almost a moral obligation in the 1980s) not in terms of adding to Simon Cowell's bank balance.

Interesting debating point - is there a difference between illegally downloading a Beatles song, thus denying Michael Jackson's estate a few pennies in copyright payments, and illegally downloading, say, an early Orange Juice track, denying the estimable Edwyn Collins (who has had a hard time of it lately) a chance to make a living? Morally, perhaps there is - but in law, there's no way such distinctions could ever be made.

As for the Bill itself... I am trying, and, I confess, struggling to get to grips with all sides of the debate, which has been complicated by suggestions that delegated legislation (i.e. a statutory instrument rather than a full-blown Act of Parliament) could be used to introduce some of the changes.

Credit is due to Tom Watson MP, who has set up a Facebook group and to Sion Simon MP, for attempting to answer people's questions on Twitter. (Sion, as a DMCS Minister, will in part be responsible for steering the Bill through the Commons). He is saying 'three strikes' is an inaccurate description of the proposed law, that "the plan is to reduce unlawful filesharing through education and warning letters. a/c suspension is a last resort reserve power." The response from some has been to argue that the Secretary of State should never have this power, that people should be fined if they break the law, not have their internet connection stopped, which, it is argued, is a fundamental breach of their civil liberties, especially where there is a family/ household computer and only one person in the household has been guilty of copyright infringement.

Anyway, this is just me dipping my toe into the water on this issue... I expect there will be a lot of debate over the coming months, as the Bill goes through Parliament, whether it's an enabling Bill which will allow further rules to be set by delegated legislation or something more substantial. Here's where you can track the progress of the Bil through Parliament. It hasn't even had its Second Reading - a general debate on principles of the Bill - yet, so those who are unhappy with the proposals as they stand will have plenty of opportunities to make their voices heard.

PS Thanks to @problybored on Twitter who has pointed me in the direction of the Featured Artists Coalition, of musicians who oppose cutting-off accounts but want to find other ways to defend their livelihoods from illegal downloading/ file-sharing. And in the direction of an open letter he's written to his own MP, which is interesting.


SteveL said...

As the author of a book whose PDF edition is regularly featured on BitTorrent and rapidshare downloads, the new bill will give me the right to shut down anyones internet simply by making three unsubstantiated assertions that someone was pirating it. That includes you, Kerry. Which means that I could shut down your internet whenever I felt like it. Should I have that power? That's up to you and the other MPs to decide. But bear in mind, I will use it. Just imagine how much chaos it would cause at a future election were a group of us copyright holders to shut down the home internet access of every MP. I would advise against this measure on that grounds alone.

As for Fergal Sharkey, people stopped buying his music a long time ago, and it wasn't because we could download all his portfolio in an evening. It was because all his music sounds the same and once you've downloaded or bought one there is no point downloading or buying anything else. He and the rest of the music/video industry built a business by controlling the supply chain and are having a hard time adjusting to a new world where nobody buys whole CDs any more. Remember "home taping is killing music?" Remember the US "VHS is killing cinema?" They adapted, and this is time to adapt too.

What frustrates me the most is that the proposal is actually at odds with the way networks work. I am a computer scientist. I do understand how networks work. Fergal Sharkey does not, and neither, clearly, does Mandlesson.

It will not solve the piracy problems because it is not technically possible.

Ethernets are designed to ship binary data around reliably. All a DVD, all a CD is, is nothing but a very large binary number. There is no fundamental way that you can stop binary data being moved around. The Internet, the collection of networks, was designed under the auspices of DARPA to enable the US military networks to survive the opening exchanges of a nuclear conflict. Packet routing is designed to recognise failures of bits of the network and work around it. In the nuclear conflict, this would be the loss of places near russia, like Anchorage and Seattle. In internet anti-piracy and censorship, it means any attempt to stop packets getting through by filtering packets. We also have this little feature called "encryption", the thing that allows you to connect your computer to a bank and safely move money around. Encryption allows anyone to share binary numbers -be they family photos or copied DVDs- with anyone else, by uploading to a US email service such as gmail, securely. There is no way the UK government will be able to monitor what is exchanged over the wire, and there is little chance that US email services will provide access to that information, except where the Patriot act kicks in. So all Mandelsson's "crack down on cyberlockers" and his demands to be granted unlimited anti-piracy rights are doomed. All you will do is grant whoever is in power at the next election unlimited rights to persecute people for doing stuff that cannot be prevented at the network level, and the right of people like myself to shut down anyone's network connection on a whim.

It's time to stop flogging a dead horse, tell Fergal his music sucks, and tell the record companies to adapt to a new world. It is possible -Microsoft make billions despite atrocious piracy of their software- but they do this by accepting and adapting to a network they understand, instead of hoping it will all go away.

Kerry said...

Just to clarify, Feargal Sharkey's interest in this topic is nothing to do with his own music, but because he's chief executive of UK Music, a umbrella group representing the music industry. It's his job to represent artists, and not just those who make lots of money from the music biz. I would also vigorously dispute the suggestion that artistic merit is linked to the number of records someone sells, which is why I'm so concerned about how we can protect the livelihoods of artists who aren't huge commercial successes but are incredibly talented.

My understanding is that the "three strikes" tag is misleading. Sion Simon on Twitter today listed all the steps that would have to be gone through before an account was suspended (if we end up deciding that suspension is an option). But I take your point - which has been raised by many elsewhere online - that what the Govt is proposing may be technically impossible.

SteveL said...

The issue is not just that its technically impossible, but the current cease-and-desist letters being sent out to the US clearly don't actually test to see if people are serving up illegal content, but only that someone claiming to be at that network address promised to serve it up. This is well documented.

That means that were someone technically competent to get, say, your home network's "IP address", it would be fairly straightforward to get your home network shut down. No assumption of innocence, no easy way for you to defend against the accusation -and no penalty to the media companies for sending out takedown notices that are in fact false.

Do you really give people such power, while still failing to address the illegal sharing of some content? Because that is a social problem, not a technical one.