The UK courts ruled this week that internet service providers are, in effect, responsible for the protection of the Hollywood film industry’s intellectual property and profits. After a long running legal dispute, the High Court instructed BT to bar its six million broadband customers across the country from accessing Newzbin2, a file-sharing website that the Motion Picture Association (MPA), a trade body representing the interests of the Hollywood film studios, believes encourages illegal downloading of blockbuster movies. And that infringes the MPA’s members’ copyright and undermines their profitability.
Recognising the labyrinthine nature of how the internet works, BT also has to block cyber back alleys that would give Newzbin’s members access through alternative routes. Not only is BT expected to act as cyber-policeman, but it also has to foot the bill.
Having got the better of the largest player in the UK market, it won’t be long before the MPA writes to the UK’s other ISPs suggesting they fall in line with the judgement to avoid troubling their legal teams with the same debate with the Judge.
In the 1970s, the radio cassette recorder performed a miracle, transferring tunes from the radio to magnetic tape for repeated replay and enjoyment. Home VCRs became affordable in the early 1980s and enabled us to record films from the TV that were scheduled to compete with live football on another channel, or broadcast beyond the watershed to please the film censor.
We weren’t copyright pirates, just kids embracing new loves that would last a lifetime, relationships that would cost small fortunes to maintain in albums, concert and cinema tickets, DVDs and popcorn in the years ahead. Magnetic tape was in fact a remarkable marketing tool for the creative industries in the analogue world. Then we learned to digitise everything.
Digital technology has revolutionised the creative industries. A personal computer with the right software is a state of the art recording studio today, while advanced computer graphics brings scenes of beauty and complexity to the big screen that were previously unthinkable, except in the most fervent imagination.
Digital technology has also transformed the way creative products are made, distributed and sold. Back catalogues and new releases alike can be acquired at the click of a mouse and enjoyed instantly from a range of websites. This revolution is part the work of companies like Apple, with its iTunes website and all manner of MP3 and video-capable devices, but also thanks to faster broadband connections that have been built with the capital investments made by the telecommunications industry.
While I do not condone the theft of anything from anybody, I’m not convinced the creative industries’ increasingly aggressive battle against the illegal downloaders will not do more harm than good in the long term.
No doubt the MPA will argue that they’re only protecting their assets and the interests of their talent, and that reduced levels of paid-for consumption of their products today impairs their ability to fund tomorrow’s productions and innovations.
But the MPA are getting it both ways. They’re happy for ISPs to carry the distribution costs for their latest marketing materials, movie trailers available on sites such as YouTube, MySpace and Vimeo. These are in effect free advertising media. Meanwhile, new music acts inhabit the world wide web is search of an audience that might, in turn, secure a record deal.
I’m also uncomfortable about any ruling that makes an ISP responsible for the behaviour of others. The law works on the principle of precedent, so the next time a bank gets robbed, who should we sue first? – the manufacturer of the motor car in which the thieves made their getaway, or whoever built the roads on which the villains managed their escape?
Whatever happened to corporate accountability? Shouldn’t Hollywood, a multi-billion dollar global industry, be responsible for the security and protection of its own products and services? Shouldn’t they be investing more of their profits to find better technical security solutions for their intellectual property, rather than shouting ‘not fair’ at the judge?
The real issue is that the servers that store digital content can be located anywhere in the world. Newzbin2’s servers are currently located in the Seychelles in the western Indian Ocean. They can be very easily moved and re-sited to another paradise overnight if trouble comes calling.
And that’s the key point. The MPA is targeting the telecoms industry simply because they are static and a stationary target is always easier to hit than a moving one.