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Last Updated: Friday, 16 January, 2004, 13:20 GMT
Don't sue me, I'm only the piano player
Suing for file-sharing is only the start and soon we could be paying to sing Happy Birthday in a restaurant, argues technology analyst Bill Thompson.

Compact disc
Music industry blames illegal downloads for falling CD sales
The British Phonographic Industry has said it is thinking about following the example of the Recording Industry Association of America and may soon sue its customers if they dare to share music over the net.

The threat is all part of the ongoing attempt to perpetuate the belief that declining sales of CDs are due to the widespread copying of unlicensed MP3 files.

Nevermind the lower number of new releases, the lack of any interesting music, or the fact that all of us over 40 have now finished buying CD versions of our vinyl albums.

Despite the lack of real evidence that file-sharing is the problem, and ignoring data from Jupiter Media Metrix that file sharers actually buy more CDs than other people, the record industry is taking legal action against those who swap files.

It seems to have had some success in the US.

Employers, colleges and even parents are so worried about the prospect of being sued, they are clamping down hard on any use of file-sharing peer-to-peer networks, even perfectly legal ones.

And now it could happen here.

Controlling technologies

A big part of the problem is that the few people see the connection between consumption and creativity.

We are still stuck with a view of the world in which most of us are passive consumers of other people's creative output.

So, controlling distribution and re-use makes good commercial sense, and we seem to be losing little other than free copies of music that we should be paying for.

Bill Thompson
Who knows what creativity could be unleashed by the growth of digital distribution and the widespread availability of programs to create, sample and manipulate content
Yet one of the most significant differences between analogue and digital media is the ability to take digital content and manipulate it ourselves.

It can be as simple as editing the adverts out of a programme, re-arranging the order of the tracks on a CD, or creating new versions of movies.

The Phantom Edit, a re-cut version of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace - but without Jar-Jar Binks - was an online hit in 2001.

Even though it was technically an infringement of copyright, George Lucas did not pursue its makers or distributors.

One way medium

The lack of interest in the creative use of digital media was brought home to me earlier this week at the Oxford Media Convention, hosted by the think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Despite the presence of the BBC's own director of new media Ashley Highfield, and a few other net luminaries, the "media" everyone was concerned with was really one medium, television.

Even the discussions on digital TV concerned ways to get everyone to switch over, and how to make sure that people with second sets would be all-digital.

There were exceptions. In one session about copyright, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig compared the current situation to the early days of photography.

When George Eastman invented paper based film in 1884, it was a technical revolution that made photography widely available.

It took it out of the hands of the professional elite who had been able to afford the large plate cameras of the time.

But the revolution was almost derailed in the US by a lawsuit which argued that photographs of people should only be taken if prior permission was granted.

Fortunately, the courts decided that photography should not be restricted in this way, and the result was the massive growth in the sales of cameras and film, as well as the growth of photos.

Birthday troubles

When it comes to music, things seem to be going the other way.

If you want a wedding video then your video-maker will have to pay out about 80 to license the background music, even though it is for personal use.

If I make a home video of my daughter's birthday party in a local restaurant and put it online for the family, I could be in trouble for using the restaurant's logo.

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
The re-edit of Phantom Menace was not a problem with Lucas
I could also be in trouble for recording an unlicensed performance of that well-known - but still copyrighted - song, "Happy Birthday".

Who knows what creativity could be unleashed by the growth of digital distribution and the widespread availability of programs to create, sample and manipulate content.

But if we treat copyright as an absolute property right, and allow the limitations on re-use forced on us by digital rights management technologies, we will never find out.

Governments today are giving the music industry everything they want.

That is understandable over in the US, where campaign financing means that lobbying and corporate interests have massive influence over policy-making and legislation.

But over here things are not that bad, and it should be possible to campaign effectively against these dangerous and damaging laws.

Otherwise I can see the day when I will have to sign a license and pay a fee before I let my daughter's friends stand up and sing to her on her birthday, unless I want to face the possibility of a lawsuit.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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