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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 May, 2004, 12:21 GMT 13:21 UK
Call for a better future for music
The record industry should realise it cannot sue its audience into submission, argues technology analyst Bill Thompson.

Blank CD
Music industry blames downloading for a fall in CD sales
The battle between the record industry, keenly observed by the film producers of Hollywood, and those of its customers who want to copy and share digital music is raging around the world.

The torrent of lawsuits, press releases blaming downloading for the drop in CD sales, and apocalyptic tales of the imminent death of recorded music continues unabated.

In the US, the Recording Industry Association of America has issued another 477 lawsuits against people who they claim are infringing copyright law by sharing music files online.

They have also named a number of universities whose networks, they claim, are being used by downloaders.

Court cases are being pursued in many other countries, and when things go against them, then the record companies throw even more money at the problem by appealing to higher courts.

In Canada they are challenging a recent court judgment that online music copying is legal because it amounts to personal use.

We have not seen these lawsuits over here yet, although European record companies continues to make threatening noises and the law now makes it possible to sue individual file-sharers.

But if sales continue to slump then it is probably only a matter of time.

The whole thing is such a waste of money and effort, enriching the lawyers, distracting the musicians and diverting the attention of the companies themselves.

They should be thinking about the quality of the music they release rather than taking their potential customers to court.

Changing behaviour

It has reached the point where neither side is going to back down, and there is no trusted third party or mediator who can resolve the situation.

Bill Thompson
The lack of understanding demonstrated by the music industry has been so complete that I thought I was beyond surprise, but I was wrong
Governments do not seem interested, and nobody is going to suggest bringing the UN in to sort this one out.

And even though the licensed and paid-for download services are beginning to offer the sort of service that could have been available four or five years ago if the record industry had shown some sense, it seems to be too little, too grudging, and too late.

Even though the campaign seems to be changing behaviour, it is not clear if things are going in the direction the industry would like.

Recent research from the US-based Pew Internet and American Life project found lots of people are giving up downloading music.

One third of the people surveyed by Pew - which would translate into six million users - said that they have stopped using unlicensed services because of the coverage of legal action taken in the US and Europe.

But they do not know whether the new users are largely using licensed services like iTunes or more secure file-sharing networks.

It may well be that we are simply seeing an increasing polarisation and that while some people are willing to use licensed services and pay for them, even though they then get music which they cannot copy freely or burn to CD, others are now committed to file sharing and free, unencumbered, downloads. And the two sides will never come together.

The lack of understanding demonstrated by the music industry has been so complete that I thought I was beyond surprise, but I was wrong.

Mash it up

David Bowie, or those of his advisors who shape his public image, has always been interested in the internet and launched a website and even an ISP long before any of his peers.

David Bowie
Bowie wants you to mash up his music
Now there is a competition for fans who are invited to make a mash-up of two or Bowie songs and send their work into the site.

At first this seemed like a brilliant idea. EMI is trying to suppress Danger Mouse's Grey Album and getting lots of bad press, while Bowie encourages his fans to appropriate and reuse his music.

It seemed that the man really understood the ways in which digital technologies can encourage creativity and new forms of artistic expression - the site even suggests that you rip songs from the older albums you own to use in your work.

But if you go to the trouble of reading the terms and conditions you find that it just is not so.

The lawyers have got to them, so everyone who enters "irrevocably grants, transfers, sells, assigns and conveys to the sponsors, their successors and assigns, all present and future right, title and interest of every kind and nature whatsoever¿ in and to the Mash-Up(s) for exploitation throughout the universe, in perpetuity, by means of any and all media and devices whether now known or hereafter devised".

Suddenly it is not so friendly at all - you can take the stuff, make something really great with it, but it is still theirs.

You get a chance to win a car, but all your work and effort belongs to Bowie and his agency, RZO Theatricals.

I wrote this article with iTunes humming in the background, shuffling random tracks from my collection. And just as I got to the end it surprised me by playing Bowie's A Better Future, the refrain to which is "I demand a better future or I might just stop needing you".

I could not have put it more clearly myself. If we do not get a better future from the record companies then we will stop needing them and the stars they promote.

Bowie should realise that he cannot demand ownership of every piece of work that is based on or inspired by his music, and the record industry should realise that it cannot sue its audience into submission.


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



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