The debate over online file-sharing, copyright infringement, piracy – call it what you will – is not going away. Indeed, the debate is more vigorous and heated than ever before.
On the one hand many copyright holders are virtually unmovable, steadfast in their belief that file-sharers are little more than thieves, undermining their livelihoods and stealing bread from their children’s mouths. The firm belief that they are dealing with criminals explains the draconian policies of the music and movie industry, they say.
On the other hand are millions upon millions of Internet users, desperate for their media fix in the most convenient forms, with as few restrictions as possible. Every download is not a lost sale, they say, indeed free downloads may even boost sales and treating file-sharers like criminals achieves nothing, with many declaring they will never stop downloading, never stop sharing.
Many champion disconnections for alleged pirates, while others say that access to the Internet and the information it provides is a fundamental right.
In the end, something will have to give.
In her speech to the Ludwig Erhard Lecture yesterday in Brussels, EU Commissioner for Telecoms and Media Viviane Reding joined the debate, focusing on the need for reconciliation between the almost warring factions.
Explaining that her number one priority is to make access to digital media easier and more attractive, Reding said this would drive the take-up of high speed Internet in Europe. However, the fact that both sides are reluctant to see the world from the perspective of the other, progress is being held back.
“While many right holders insist that every unauthorised download from the Internet is a violation of intellectual property rights and therefore illegal or even criminal, others stress that access to the Internet is a crucial fundamental right,” Reding explained.
“Let me be clear on this: Both sides are right. The drama is that after long and often fruitless battles, both camps have now dug themselves in their positions, without any signs of opening from either side.”
Of course, these entrenched positions do little to further the possibility of some kind of willing reconciliation, with many in the file-sharing community more determined than ever to preserve their activities and nurture their beloved hobby, often in a particularly proud way, a point not lost on Reding.
“In the meantime, Internet piracy appears to become more and more ‘sexy’, in particular for the digital natives already, the young generation of intense Internet users between 16 and 24,” she told the lecture.
Noting that this age group should become the “foundation of our digital economy, of new innovation and new growth opportunities,” Reding outlined the difficulties in bringing the sides together. Quoting Eurostat figures, she claimed that 60% of 16-24 year-olds have downloaded audiovisual content from the Internet in recent months without paying. “And 28% state that they would not be willing to pay,” she added.
These figures, according to Reding, are indicative of the limitations of the present system;
“It is necessary to penalize those who are breaking the law. But are there really enough attractive and consumer-friendly legal offers on the market?” she mused, hitting on one of the biggest complaints from media consumers.
Highlighting the perceived gap between ‘suits’ and citizens, Reding questioned if the current legal system for dealing with copyright meets the expectations of the younger, more tech-savvy Internet generation;
“Have we considered all alternative options to repression? Have we really looked at the issue through the eyes of a 16 year old? Or only from the perspective of law professors who grew up in the Gutenberg Age? In my view, growing Internet piracy is a vote of no-confidence in existing business models and legal solutions. It should be a wake-up call for policy-makers.”
Ask many on the file-sharing side of the debate and they will agree with Reding when she says that something must be done and done quickly too. If the media companies don’t make access to online media easier and more attractive “we could lose a whole generation as supporters of artistic creation and legal use of digital services. Economically, socially, and culturally, this would be a tragedy,” she said.
“Digital Europe can only be built with content creators on board,” Reding told the lecture, “and with the generation of digital natives as interested users and innovative consumers.”
In the end, people will have to talk. When all is said and done, legal action and disconnections will not solve this mess. Scaring people into becoming a customer is not a sustainable business model. In the end – just like flowing water – people will find the easiest route to the destination they require. It is up to the entertainment companies to ensure that the route Internet users take to media is via their door, and not to that of the nearest torrent site.
When that will be is anyone’s guess. My guess is no time soon.