July 24, 2008

Musicians Are the Only Group Who Will Welcome This Tax



When the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, endorsed a plan to deprive illegal music downloaders of internet access in November 2007, those who believe in free, unfettered access were quick to roar their disapproval. The music industry, meanwhile, was delighted, with John Kennedy, from the international recording industry body IFPI, describing it as "the single most important initiative to help win the war on online piracy that we have seen".

While the British Government backed a similar move in a draft consultation Green Paper in February, there has been much debate about whether it would provide an effective deterrent. Shared internet access is widespread so determining who is actually participating in illegal file-sharing isn't always easy. And even if offenders are caught red-handed, there's little to stop them finding internet access via different channels.

Blocking the peer-to-peer networks that carry illegally shared files is another option, but this, too, has its drawbacks. While much of the material shared on P2P is illegal, the technology that drives it is used for perfectly above-board activities. So, to reuse one of my own analogies, tackling the problem in this way is just like Selfridges trying to combat shoplifting by removing all their lifts and escalators.

Which leaves a plan to add a levy to every broadband package, and redistribute the monies collected among artists, labels and publishers. Such a scheme was put forward in January by the Songwriters Association of Canada, allowing consumers to download unlimited amounts of music from any filesharing network in return for a $5 rise in their broadband bill. Such a proposal would in effect dump $1bn in the lap of the music industry. But the reaction to it was surprisingly negative: ISPs refused to administer the price rise, consumers who don't download music pledged never to pay up, and record companies - obviously keen to retain what little hold they still have over distribution of music - labelled the proposal a "pipedream".

The pinch would certainly be felt by legal stores such as iTunes, whose raison d'tre would in effect disappear. But with the ratio of shared to paid downloads conservatively estimated as 50 to 1, the thorny problem of monetising music in the 21st century will continue to be ferociously argued over.

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