Irma strikes warning note to music file sharers
Net Results: “This is not me over reacting and being a knob. DO NOT BUY ANY CD. None, not even one. When enough people do this then they will learn that we decide what’s fair.”
This is the defiant message for the Irish Recorded Music Association (Irma) posted on http://www.boards.ie, the Irish online bulletin board, this week by a member who goes by the colourful title, 4Xcut.
Scores of other messages on the website cannot be printed in a family newspaper. However, it is clear that Irma’s assault on illegal “uploaders” of music has focused minds among the tens of thousands of people using file-sharing networks to swap music tracks.
Irma’s focus on people using the web to access and distribute music is hardly surprising. Over the past two years, similar bodies have lodged more than 11,000 legal cases against individuals across the US, Europe and Asia.
So it was only a matter of time before Irma, which represents some of the worlds’s biggest record labels, turned its attention to Irish people logging on to file-sharing networks such as KaZaA or Gnutella to get tracks free.
Only the slow roll-out of broadband – which is required to easily download large numbers of music files – in the Republic and a lack of legal sites for downloading music delayed the legal onslaught. But with the roll-out of iTunes, the Eircom Music Club, Mycokemusic.com, Wippit Ireland and the Vitaminic Music Club over the past year, Irma obviously feels that it is the right time to call the lawyers into battle.
The lobby group estimates that more than 236,000 people have downloaded music illegally, costing the music industry millions of euro in lost sales. In its presentation to journalists, Irma warned that declining CD sales in recent years – a trend reversed in 2004 – threatens to prevent the music industry from reinvesting in innovative Irish music acts.
(Bearing in mind the industry’s promotion of bands such as Six and B*Witched in recent years, this could be a blessing in disguise for older music enthusiasts.)
Irish consumers can also point to the ludicrous price of CDs in this country – they cost more than €20 for new releases – in defence of their migration to file-sharing networks. This is a fact not lost on the music industry, which has been forced to reduce the price of CDs in recent years due to the threat posed from downloading.
But breaching copyright law in the Republic is a risky business.
People found guilty of downloading music illegally can be fined €1,900 for each track or face up to six months in jail and, judging by the bullish messages on http://www.boards.ie, people connecting to file-sharing networks are likely to have hundreds, if not thousands, of songs on their PCs.
So are a quarter of a million Irish people to face massive fines and be labelled criminals?
Not likely. First of all, Irma is lodging civil suits, rather than pursuing criminal cases which need the co-operation of the Director of Public Prosecutions. This means that no one goes to prison.
And crucially, in its first wave of legal actions, Irma is targeting only “serial uploaders” of music – that is, people who are sharing large amounts of music tracks on file-sharing networks. Of the 17 people that are currently being pursued by Irma, the top seven have 2,000 to 3,000 music files on their systems. So people who use file-sharing networks infrequently and do not have large music libraries on their hard disks are unlikely to be caught. The sheer volume of illegal file-sharing on the web means that Irma and its sister organisations abroad can only target a small number of people.
What Irma is really seeking through its legal campaign is a couple of high-profile cases to scare the wits out of illegal files sharers and their parents. After all, it is a fair assumption that many of the internet account holders pinpointed by Irma as music pirates will be the parents of teenagers using the home PC.
Evidence from the US, where the first music industry lawsuits were filed, shows that the volume of downloading using file-sharing networks is falling as people become aware of the risk of industry litigation.
Overall, the number of infringing music files available on the internet dropped from its peak of 1.1 billion in April 2003 to 870 million in January 2005, a fall of 21 per cent and it is no coincidence that TV pictures of illegal file sharers such as 12-year-old Brianna LaHara paying the industry thousands in damages is having an impact on illegal file sharers.
LaHara’s mother picked up the tab and paid out $2,000 (€1,520) to the Recording Industry Association of America to settle the first file-sharing case in the US. Hundreds of cases have since been settled.
So Irma’s campaign will benefit from the publicity generated by taking the legal route, particularly if any schoolkids are among the first 17 cases. That is unless the general public follow 4Xcut’s advice and boycott record shops – a far too drastic action for most teens.
Yet Irma still faces one final hurdle before its pursuit of Irish file-sharers really hits home – it needs the names and addresses of account holders from internet service providers. Eircom and BT both confirmed last week that they have no intention of breaching the confidentiality of their customers, forcing Irma to go to the courts for injunctions.
In most countries, including Britain and the US, the courts have sided with the music industry and forced ISPs to produce names. But the Canadian courts last year ruled to protect the confidentiality of account holders, signalling that nothing is assured in the complicated world of global copyright law.
Two legal opinions supplied to The Irish Times from law firms Merrion Legal and Mason Hayes & Curran suggest that Irma’s application to ISPs to gain access to the names is not a sure thing. Nevertheless, it would be a brave person who bets against the global entertainment industry, which is worth billions.
But the web is a tricky medium to control. Irma will find that Irish song-swappers will continue to swap music using e-mail, instant messaging, newsgroups, university intranets and a host of other ways that have not even been thought up yet. If the music industry and Irma’s members want to keep growing its profits, they need to offer punters a better product at better prices.
© The Irish Times