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Music biz proposes 'iPod tax' in return for format-shift freedom

Pay for the CD, pay again to rip it

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A UK music industry trade body has proposed a tax on MP3 players that would not only ensure musicians and labels are paid their dues, but also that consumers who pay their way effectively have to cough up twice.

The tax has been suggested by the Music Business Group (MBG), an umbrella body that lists as its members organisations like the BPI, the Association of Independent Music (AIM), and licensing and royalties overseer MCPS-PRS.

The MBG hasn't said how much extra it wants consumers to pay for new iPods, Walkmen, Sansas and the like, but it wants the levy to be decided by the music industry and device makers rather than government.

The organisation did say that is acknowledges that "consumers clearly want to format-shift", that “music fans clearly deserve legal clarity” and that it wants punters to have “the freedom to enjoy any music they have legitimately obtained”.

But only if they pay for it a second time round. The MBG's proposal is essentially a way to help the music industry get paid twice for the same thing: first for the CD and once again, by way of the iPod tax, for using the CD's content outside a CD player. It's the equivalent of asking consumers to buy two CDs, one for home, the other for the car.

The MBG said the levy "would be restricted to copying in the offline world", but by taxing the playback device, it ensures people who no longer buy CDs but acquire all their music from legal downloads services have to cough up twice too: first, when they download a track, and again when they buy a new device to download it to.

But why stop there? Since the copying is carried out on a computer, and the files might never be transferred to a music player, why not tax PCs too? If the MBG's argument is based solely on the extra value of music on the move, what about all those phones that can also have songs copied to them? How about car stereos?

As it stands, the MBG proposal brings no compensation to artists from folk who rip CDs but don't own an MP3 player.

Artists should be compensated for their work - few sensible folk would disagree with that - and the labels that facilitate ther distribution of that material should be entitled to a cut too. But their compensation comes from the sale of the CD or the iTunes download. Just because a certain technology makes it easier for people to listen to that content doesn't mean the content providers deserve a second bite of the pie.

What next? Paying a levy on shoes because bus companies lose out every time the weather's nice and we walk to work instead? Should we pay the plumber who installed our new loo every time we take a pee?

Of course, the logical solution is to charge more for CDs and downloads, but the music industry undoubtedly fears such a move would just encourage more consumers to grab songs from file-sharers.

The MBG voiced its rejection of a proposal made recently by the UK’s Minister of Intellectual Property, Lord Triesman, that Brits should have the right to copy freely legitimately acquired music from one device to any other, provided it's for purely personal use.

As it stands, that right is not granted under UK copyright law, which is why anyone's who's ever ripped one of their own CDs - especially if they subsequently gave away or sold the source disc - in Britain has broken the law.

His Lordship's point is surely that the law not only needs to be updated to take into account new technology, but also recognition that the law as it stands is entirely unenforceable. Triesman's proposal does nothing to aid music pirates and consumers who choose to source their music from illegal download channels. But it does bring the law up to date, and gives Brits the same 'fair use' right enjoyed by music consumers in the US, for example.

The kind of thing the MBG is proposing has been tried elsewhere. In January, Canada’s Federal Court of Appeal rejected a decision by the country’s copyright board to empoe an iPod tax of the kind the MBG wants to introduce in the UK. If passed, Canadians may have to pay an additional CA$5 on digital audio players with less than 1GB of storage capacity and up to CA$75 for players with higher capacities.

James Sherwood contributed to this report

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