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Suing grannies for MP3 swapping – will it start in the UK?

It's increasingly likely, says BPI

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Since the RIAA started suing children and senior citizens, the British music industry has been giving the impression that it was unlikely to do anything quite so reputation-threatening this side of the pond. But on the other hand... British Phonographic Industry (BPI) director general Andrew Yeates has been busy this week, trailing the prospect of a crackdown on file-swappers in the UK, and telling MPs that the US action has been successful in creating awareness about illegal downloading.

Which kind of depends on what you mean by awareness. Speaking to Salon, RIAA lobbyist Mitch Glazier claimed the lawsuits have facilitated a national discussion. "They have raised awareness and especially made parents talk to their kids about what they're doing online." But we very much doubt that this means parents and children have now arrived at an RIAA-friendly understanding that file-swapping is theft, and have consequently vowed to pay for all their music in future. More likely, they've become aware that sharing large quantities of files on an easily-identified node is not a good idea, so they've turned it down a tad and are looking at precautions. Which could mean they'll be getting a rather different kind of education than the music industry has in mind.

Yeates' remarks have triggered the predictable backlash, with Liberal culture spokesman Don Foster telling the BPI to "target pirates, not grannies," and saying the music industry should "raise its game." Meanwhile BPI spokespeople have been stressing that although the likelihood of legal action has been increasing, the people making money out of music piracy remain the primary targets.

Yeates himself said that any action would be "proportional," presumably meaning that if legal actions go ahead, they will be against large-scale sharers. This however is the route pursued by the RIAA in the US, where it swiftly became apparent that many kids don't understand the implications of what they're doing (not exactly earth-shattering news for most parents), and that grannies may well be entirely ignorant of the several gigs of gangsta rap camping on their hard disk.

So the trick will be to make enough noise to dampen-off file-swapping while avoiding suing anything that's going to look like a victim of heartless pigopolist greedheads. Tricky, but not impossible. Say you started talking about the increasing likelihood of action, thus triggering intense media interest, and much outcry on busting grannies? Say your PR people followed this up by stressing you would only be going for the real villains? Say you subsequently did precisely that, confining your activities - as previously - to real pirates and car-boot salespeople? Say that approach had an approximately equivalent effect to that of the RIAA action, without the negatives?

We should learn fairly soon whether or not the British industry is clever enough to do that. Yeates is anticipating the arrival of iTunes and similar services in Europe having an effect, and suggests that legal enforcement may not occur until this can be gauged. iTunes et al are however more likely to provide the music industry with an alibi than a solution to what it has historically, but wrongly, perceived as the threat.

Although iTunes is not what The Register would view as the solution to online music distribution (in that it reduces your ownership rights from those you get when you purchase a CD), it has been successful because it offers consumers what they perceive as a reasonable deal where no such deal existed before. The appearance of rival services will have a tendency to commoditise the market, perhaps driving down prices and extending the rights purchased, while DRM-free initiatives such as Warp's will also have an effect on the shape of the future online music market.

There is here a massive potential for a loss of control by the music industry. It will not be able to control price, it will lose control of packaging (as in the case of iTunes' effect on the singles market), and may even have to negotiate over rights, rather than follow its preferred route of imposing them. The financial consequences of this process will become rather more of an issue for the music industry than file-sharing, so it won't be surprising if they announce victory, lay off the swappers and concentrate on how they're going to eat in this strange, changed world. Yes, we hope they don't all make it, too. ®

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