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Daily usage of the internet has certainly transformed our lives today. The ease of communication, learning and exploration the World Wide Web by just some clicks is the main reason this phenomenal technology has become an integral part of our day to day lives. However, just like a coin has two sides, there has been a huge increase in the illegal sharing of protected works like apps, games, movies and music through the internet. As a result, authors of copyright material are concerned about the serious impact it has had on the revenues from these works. Although the ramification of file sharing on the holders of copyright isn’t purely conclusive, the UK government is trying to enforce some policies that will attempt to uphold the copyright law and protect against further growth of the Peer-to-Peer (P2P) file-sharing methods. In the following essay, I shall look at the current file-sharing situation in the UK. Additionally, I will also evaluate the copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998 and how file shares may be prosecuted under this Act as well as future legislation.
1988 was when the first forms of file sharing technique were introduced. An American university student Shawn Fanning developed Napster. The users were connected to central Napster servers from which they can download the song of their choice by searching within the application. The users of the app were in turn required to upload their music collection on the app for sustainable sharing. Such a system is referred to as P2P network as the sharing was facilitated by matchmaking of the peers through the central server but the system itself did not host any music files. In ‘February (2001), Napster’s file-sharing system and web site attracted 17 million users in the US’. However, this led to the filing of a lawsuit against the company by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Although the company claimed their activities to be legal as they did not host any music files, court injunction forced it to shut down. This was the first fight against the illegal music sharing which continues today.
Despite Napster being shut down, the legacy left behind was huge. In early 2000s many more P2P sites flourished, notable being Kazaa, eDonkey and LimeWire. However, the development of BitTorrent marked the beginning of a whole new generation of P2P file sharing. This system required users to download a small file called ‘torrent’ which communicated with the ‘tacker’. The ‘tacker’ looks for other users with parts of the file and then uploads them to user’s client where the file fragments are joined together. As opposed to Napster, the speed of the transfer was greatly improved.
The exponential increase in the number of users using these techniques of sharing files over the past few years have led the UK government to tighten the copyright laws to restrict its use. However, research conducted by the Strategic Advisory Board for Intellectual Property Policy demonstrated that ‘at least seven million people’ accessed online content illegally (Telegraph, 2009). To give it some context, 5600 people volunteered to upload their music downloading data upon ‘iTunes Registry’ website. A study conducted for an online blog showed that 64% of the downloaded music was never played by the users. Hence, it is not economical for the user to pay for a song they will not even listen to. This demonstrates that most of the music downloaded by the people is pirated. Although this research might not be an accurate representation of the music usage patterns by the British population, it does, however, add to the evidence for the bigger picture of P2P file sharing and how the government is limited in prosecuting a large number of file shares.
It has been claimed by the creative industries that due to the act of file sharing they have suffered a loss of many millions of pounds in the lost revenue from retail sales. RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America says, ‘sales have been hard’ (BBC News 2013). Additionally, it has been found by European research that due to this issue ‘these creative industries suffer devastating economic losses’. To give some context to the issue here, it has been predicted by the International Chamber of Commerce that ‘quarter million’ jobs in the UK ‘could be lost by 2015’ as a result of online piracy. Another study claimed that of lost revenue, around 10 million Euros were lost in 2008 alone. The numbers presented can be ambiguous to some extent. The reason being that these reports appear to presume that legitimate downloads would equate the illegal downloads made by the user. This, however, cannot be the case. As discussed previously, iTunes statistics suggest that 64% of soundtracks downloaded illegally aren’t even listened to. Hence, the figure of 10 million is more likely to apply to the general pirated content and not specific to the music industry alone. Anyhow, it seems like creative industries have been significantly affected by the act of piracy which led them to take extensively legal action against the infringers.
On the contrary, a study demonstrates the over-exaggeration of the negative impact of file sharing on the music industry. It has been found by Leading Questions, a music industry firm, that a typical file sharer spends ‘four and a half time more on paid-for music downloads than the average fan’. When paired along with other research findings, this suggests that piracy of music is not the only factor affecting negative sales in the industry. Although, the study was conducted upon ‘music fans’ rather than regular file sharing user, hence may not be truly indicative of the situation. However, a substantial decrease in illegal music sharing has been overserved since past couple of years. A 5% drop in illegal music sharing between December 2007 and January 2009 was recorded in a study conducted by Music Ally. The same study also showed a 16% decrease in file-sharing by 14 to18-year-olds. This significant drop in piracy can be attributed to the fact that the music industry underwent significant changes during 2008 and 2009. The cost of buying single music tracks was reduced to just a few pence which resulted in more fans purchasing the single music track instead of obtaining it illegally.
The claims of creative industries about file sharing heavily impacting their profitability are opposed to the fact that loss- somewhat significant – is not likely to have huge economic consequences. But where does the government come into play? What role it has to restrict such activities?
In the UK, Copyright, Designs and Patents act 1988 makes illegal sharing of the copyrighted content prosecutable. It makes sure that the original creator of the content benefits from his or her efforts and refrains the use of the material by other people for their benefit. Copyright Act can protect any creative and artistic endeavour such as literary work, musical work, dramatic work and artistic work. Copyright gives the author exclusive ‘rights to reproduce, publish, perform, and adapt the work, and communicate it to the public’.
There is a prevailing misconception about the internet being ‘Copyright-free zone’. The cause is easy accessibility of the protected work. To demonstrate this, we can consider the world’s most popular search engine: Google. The option of ‘image search’ presents the user with millions of images related to the topic and gives the freedom to choose and copy as per their own will. Although it is written next to the image that it may be subject to copyright, a typical user will rarely pay attention to it. Additionally, no proper information is given as to what ‘Copyright’ actually means. This is precisely the root of the issue. Lack of awareness regarding Copyright infringement and the consequences of that is the main issue that needs to be looked at by the government.
Without the government innervation, it would be very difficult for the publishers of the private sector to recover their lost revenue and cope up with these file sharing techniques. There has been an increased rate in the copyright infringement issue. The catalyst could be an increasing number of internet users and the ease of its accessibility. Since the world, the wide web is not just limited to one country, but more like international communication platform, this further adds to the difficulty of copyright authors trying to enforce their right because of different national laws affecting different websites. Despite the right to protect the content, some so many users share content that in my opinion, it is not practical for the copyright holders to take any action against the infringers. There is no one person to be held accountable. Although taking legal action against some infringers may reflect a change in attitude that seems to be taking place in the music industry, it is unlikely to stop thousands of people from breaking the law in future.
Since 1991 the copyright law in the UK has remained the same. Therefore, looking at the increasing rate of piracy, it was evident that some amendments were required to tackle the rising issue. Digital Economy Bill has been introduced to decrease the file-sharing rate by ‘70%’ in 12 months from its time of introduction on 12th June 2010. This bill puts more responsibility on the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to take any action against the file sharers. Numerous letters to the offender are required to be sent by the ISPs and ‘if this proves insufficient, they could be prevented from going online by the internet service provider’. Additionally, if deemed inappropriate the British government reserves the right to restrict any website for access by the British public.
However, this new bill has been criticised a lot by the ISPs as there is a huge cost involved in writing letters and reducing connections which significantly shrinks their profit margin. Google Inc. also expressed its concern upon the need to restrict the websites when the users will find an alternative to the restricting eventually. On the contrary, the music industry is fairly optimistic that the new bill will lead to an increase in the rate of progress being made against music piracy. They believe that this will cause creative industries to ‘blossom’. Additional revenue of the music industry could be reinvested into making new digital content. Whereas, I believe that instead of re-investment into making new digital content, this money will be used to repair the damage that music industry has incurred over last few years or the additional revenue will just be retained by the large companies.
Music piracy has been a topic of discussion for a very long time. Any legal measures adopted by the government against this would be met with opposition. In my opinion, creative industries are looking for a sure-shot solution to put a complete end to music piracy. However, this is highly unlikely to happen due to the nature of the internet. Internet is a huge interconnected network that cannot be regulated easily. The capacity of file sharing will continue to exist as long as physical links between the computer nodes are present. I think it is impractical for the government to try and disconnect the file sharers as per its current plans. Attempting to censor the websites may help restrict casual file-sharers, however, regardless of the path taken by the government, people will find alternative ways to share files. Additionally, adopting China-style censoring of the internet in Britain would raise serious questions on internet censorship ethics. Hence, I believe that instead of implementing ‘ineffective’ legislations government should aim to constantly spread awareness about the infringement of copyright law due to file sharing via a sustained public advertisement.
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