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Indies, songwriters want jaw jaw with ISPs

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Indie labels, songwriters and publishers hailed Wednesday as a landmark day for digital music - the first sign that many of the warring parties within the music business have agreed on something.

A London conference brought together representatives who are more used to squabbling: the Association of Independent Music (AIM), which represents indies and British Music Rights (BMR), which represents collection agencies, performers and composers. Even some majors were present.

What they agreed on is extremely vague, and goes by the unlovely name of "Value Recognition Right" - but all sides said that agreeing to agree was the first step - especially when the consensus was emerging from the most representative spectrum of interests that could be assembled.

BMR spokesman Scott Walker explained VRR as, "the right of the creative community to license depending on value that has been accrued by other intermediaries."

It was foolish suing the consumer, he said, but the parts of the business that came to the parade this week - a fair chunk of it - didn't have the tools to do what they wanted, and monetize the digital flows of information.

None of the billions of P2P transactions net the musicians, publishers or indie labels a penny.

AIM's Sam Shentob told us much the same thing.

"Let's try and license where possible."

But any talk of specifics - such as levies and legal frameworks - was way premature, he agreed.

The timing was a bit unfortunate, but couldn't be helped. Earlier in the week, the British Phonographic Institute - representing the coke and stockbroker-belt end of the business - had very publicly decided that it was going to go after ISPs, naming and shaming two - Tiscali and Cable and Wireless - for failing to police their networks for copyright infringement.

At least two publications got their wires crossed, assuming that the BPI's latest hostilities and the Wednesday declaration were part of a co-ordinated campaign, and concluded that VRR is the fancy new name for screwing ISPs.

In fact, the VRR declaration coincided with the BPI's Annual General Meeting - so it couldn't really have been less co-ordinated.

So now they've agreed to agree, where will the declaration take us next? You could be forgiven for thinking that protestations about not wanting a levy or legislative tweaks just yet sound a little gauche.

But ISPs have plenty to worry about already - such as survival. ISPs have known for years - thanks to analysts banding around phrases like "dumb bit pipe", that the business is being commoditized. With Carphone Warehouse now touting "free broadband for life", it's happening more rapidly than many would like.

So you have songwriters, publishers and labels who want some crumbs, and ISPs who want to add value. Can't the twain meet?

An ISP who's trying to monetize the digital music flows, Paul Sanders of PlayLouder MSP, summed up the dilemma succinctly for us today.

"The challenge for ISPs is maintaining their safe harbour provisions and their copyright liability exemptions - while getting involved in the distribution of digital content," he said.

"The two goals aren't mutually exclusive, but they sure as hell can get in the way of each other."

There's a lot of value in music flowing around ISPs' networks - but the creative end of the industry isn't seeing any of it - and nor are ISPs, Sanders pointed out.

"Look who's making money - MySpace, from its advertising revenue; Google, which is selling the advertisements, Verizon, PayPal... Musicians are expected to work for free for News International now."

There are fates worse than the road from VRR. ®

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