Andrew Walmsley on digital: Music trade should go with digital flow

The story famously associated with King Canute is most commonly interpreted as an example of hubris. But Canute was, in reality, smarter than this, attempting to demonstrate to his fawning courtiers that even he, as King, could not stop the incoming tide.

It seems, though, that the music industry has no such self-awareness. As a bunch of people who have clearly never heard of King Canute, its struggle to hold back the rising tide of illegal downloading continues.

Threatening to take single mums to court for their kids' downloads and suing file-sharing site Napster, the industry has fought tooth and nail to halt the growth of piracy and the file-sharing sites that feed it.

Despite this, consumers have been voting with their mouse - more than 10m people shared files on Pirate Bay, until it was closed by Swedish police earlier this month, and 26m on Napster before it was shut down in 2001. More than a third of web traffic is said to be in the form of torrents - typically video files being shared between users - and the appetite for illegal downloads seems insatiable.

Now the industry has dragged the Department for Culture, Media and Sport into building dykes for them to stick their finger into. A draft copy of the forthcoming Green Paper on the creative industries, quoted in The Times, set out the government's intention to force internet service providers (ISPs) to 'take action on illegal file-sharing'.

In other words, the idea is that ISPs will monitor not just what types of files are being shared by users, but the actual content, and, presumably, copyright status, of those files. Many ISPs already discriminate between file types, usually to ensure quality of service for users - data for a phone call has to be prioritised to avoid the sound breaking up, while an email arriving half a second later rarely makes any difference to anyone.

But this is quite different, because it will require ISPs to first spy on users and then punish them for infringing the law, withdrawing the service from them and providing evidence to record companies.

The BPI has been lobbying for ages for this. Chief executive Geoff Taylor is quoted on its website calling for ISPs to tie with the music industry to help grow the creative economy, and accusing them of having 'built a business on other people's music'.

Ignoring the fact that ISPs, and the web, have been built on a fair bit more than just music, his proposed partnership is, in reality, a bit one-sided. ISPs will act as his police force, but he does not propose to pay them for it.

ISPs argue that in a similar way to the Post Office and phone companies, they are 'common carriers', with no responsibility for what they convey. This seems self-evident, but perhaps Mr Taylor would contend that Tarmac should be held accountable for the development of the getaway car in robberies.

While it is disappointing that the government seems to have been sucked into supporting this, it is not that surprising coming from the music industry.

Digital represents a huge threat to its existing business model and it is one that will continue to grow, rather than go away. But digital also represents exciting opportunities.

New businesses will be built, additional industries created and fresh fortunes made, and record companies are in a prime position to capitalise on the potential. Perhaps, if the music business spent half the time that it devotes to trying to turn back the tide, to thinking about how to tap into this potential, it might have a chance of succeeding.

It needs to look forward, but having an industry body that includes the word phonographic in its name doesn't seem to be a sign that it is ready for that.

- Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level

30 SECONDS ON ... BPI

- The British Phonographic Industry (BPI) is the British record industry's trade association.

- It has represented the interests of British record companies since 1973, when its principal aim was to fight copyright infringement.

- Its membership comprises hundreds of music companies including Warner Music Group, EMI, Sony BMG, and Universal Music Group.

- It founded the BRIT Awards for the British music industry, as well as the Mercury Prize to recognise the Album of the Year.

- The BPI divides its work into protection, promotion, and representation and support.

- It protects the interests of its members by enforcing copyright law in the UK through means including civil and criminal litigation, lobbying against filesharing sites, and supporting other enforcement agencies in anti-copyright infringement raids.

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