It seems there is a war on the internet, a war with the entertainment industry and its powerful allies on one side and the advocates of a “free” internet on the other side. A divided music and art community (1) and especially the regular Internet user (meanwhile the majority of the population in the western world) are in danger to be the victim. I was a regular user of ethesis.net, a Belgian website where students could place their dissertation. This site was a unique source of historical and scientific information. SABAM, the Belgian association of authors, composers and publishers, caused the fact this site is now off-line because of a dispute about one illustration within one thesis of the hundreds published on this site. This particular illustration should be copyright protected. So, because of a daft illustration, not only the general public is denied of a wealth of information, but those responsible for this excellent initiative are punished instead of rewarded.
But there are even worse things happening. At the end of September 2010 it was revealed that the British legal firm ACS: Law, which works for the entertainment industry, was sending on large scale threat letters on behalf of record companies and movie houses. Their way of working seemed to be quite arbitrary. The recipients were accused of exchanging files illegally. The firm collected around 650.000 British Pounds on settlements. More as ten thousand people were approached. Approximately 30 percent agreed immediately to a settlement proposal to the amount of some hundreds Pounds (2).
Meanwhile in Belgium...
In Belgium it is forbidden to publish a photo of the Atomium on your website. In 2006 it was documented that someone posted such photo on his weblog. Immediately the owner of the website received a warning from the management company SABAM. The photo should be deleted or a payment of 91.65 euros by photo and by month should be paid. There are many cases like this.
But ... it is allowed to put Manneken Pis on your website in Belgium.
How could this all be and how will it continue?
The great cause of all this mischief is the simple fact that a small part of the entertainment industry, namely the big record and movie companies have never succeeded to achieve the necessary creativity and innovations imposed by the new possibilities of the Internet. Instead, the way of senseless trials was chosen, as if they won these court cases, the average budget for a family to spend on entertainment would increase miraculously. In this way big parts of this industry got locked in an aggressive conservative reflex.
It is striking that nowadays it is again the individual downloader which is targeted. I am thinking of the French HAPODI-law (3) and some initiatives in the European Parliament (4), and this notwithstanding that several studies show the biggest downloaders are the best customers of the entertainment industry (5). By the large-scale application of these measures this industry will shoot its own foot by alienating its best customers. Young people will be rushing to join artists who avoid the traditional way of publishing and are more connected with their own way of living. Hence my comparison with Murdoch (6) in the title. He decided the online version of "The (London) Times," should be paid for. However, this was a big flop and a renowned news source disappeared in the marginality (7). Accidentally or not, but Murdoch is also notorious because his court cases.
Compared with the onslaught of the entertainment industry the case of Murdoch is only anecdotal like the deeds of the entertainment industry nowadays will be only anecdotal events in the history of the Internet. But these events will delay the normal development of the Internet with some years. In those years more excellent initiatives such as e-thesis will disappear and people who want to be creative on the Internet risk to be punished in stead of rewarded. An error against the rules which are forged behind the scenes now will be easily made (8). Also people downloading in a wrong way will perhaps be severely punished.
Nowadays the situation for downloaders differs a lot from country to country. In the Netherlands, for instance, downloading music and movies for personal use is still legal (9). Possible loss of copyright is compensated by a tax on the purchase of blank media. Shouldn't it be a good temporary measure to expand this kind of legalization to the rest of world? That way we can avoid that families got struck by massive fines and denial of Internet access in case son or daughter (or grandmother) downloads "illegally" their favorite songs or movies.
The fact that the Internet is measurable provides a good key for the money distribution towards the artists. Indeed, the leaked MediaDefender files, indicated that the music industry uses illegal download figures to determine how a particular CD or DVD can be launched (10). Obviously these figures can also be used for distribution of funds.
Furthermore an international public discussion need to be started. A good starting point are the propositions of La Quadrature du Net, an advocacy group that promotes the rights and freedoms of citizens on the Internet. More specifically, it advocates for the adaptation of French and European legislations to respect the founding principles of the Internet, most notably the free circulation of knowledge. As such, La Quadrature du Net engages in public-policy debates concerning, for instance, freedom of expression, copyright, regulation of telecommunications and online privacy.
In addition to its advocacy work, the group also aims to foster a better understanding of legislative processes among citizens. Through specific and pertinent information and tools, La Quadrature du Net hopes to encourage citizens' participation in the public debate on rights and freedoms in the digital age. Bits of Freedom is a similar Dutch organisation.
I started to write this article because I was upset by the reason through which the site ethesis.net had to disappear from the Internet. This shows the vulnerability of people publishing on the Internet. I'm aware of more situations like this. Mostly it is impossible to find background information. In this particular case I know the truth because the son of the responsible of the site told me what was going on. Unlike the courts SABAM apparently likes to handle its affairs discreetly and apparently it has the power to enforce the same discretion on its targets. This tactic obviously doesn't work with financially stronger initiatives. Such initiatives can wait for a lawsuit. Thus, in the summer of 2010 there was a lawsuit from Sabam against Netlog, a renowned Belgian social-networking site. Sabam lost the case (11). However, the facts were of a higher weight as the ones of e-thesis.
During my search I bumped into the inevitable war of the entertainment industry against "illegal" downloads, which - frankly spoken - never kept me awake. Apparently this industry wants to expand its war towards the ordinary Internet user. Due to the fact that the Internet is global but the legislation varies from country to country, the messages the users are receiving are very contradicting. An example: the English scientist, Richard Dawkins recommend on his site to download his documentary "Faith School Menace” from a site which is on the blacklist of the "Belgian Anti Piracy Federation“ (BAF). BAF even tried to make this site inaccessible in Belgium by court rule (12).
As already mentioned, the cause of all this is the fact that a part of the film and music industry lacks the creativity to use the Internet on a constructive way. In stead of that an extreme conservative reflex distorts the whole sector and in its wake the copyright associations.
To conclude a link to an artist trying it another way: Jamison Young
The site of Dr. Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa where he holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law.
(1) See for instance http://www.nme.com/news/Reverend-and-the-makers/47557 and http://www.undercover.fm/news/9106-lily-allen-slammed-by-reverend-and-the-makers-frontman
(2) It is easy to find more information. A good start is the wikipedia entrance of ACS:Law. You find some background there, together with the actual facts.
Some other links: http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2010-09/27/leaked-emails-fuel-anti-piracy-scandal, http://www.zdnet.com/privacy-group-takes-on-acslaw-over-porn-data-breach-3040090288/ and http://torrentfreak.com/acslaw-anti-piracy-law-firm-torn-apart-by-leaked-emails-100925/
(5) See for instance Legal, Economic and Cultural Aspects of File Sharing by Nico van EIJK (Institute for Information Law (IViR, University of Amsterdam), Joost POORT (SEO Economic Research) and Paul RUTTEN (University of Leiden)
(6) For the megalomania of Murdoch, see for instance http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/online/rupert-murdoch-claims-to-own-the-sky-in-skype-2048607.html or shorter http://derekmcmillan1951.blogspot.com/2010/08/megalomaniac-murdoch.html
(8) A good illustration of this are the endless and secretive talks around the ACTA agreement (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement). Even the European Parliament got nervous of it: http://www.euractiv.com/health/meps-defy-commission-internet-piracy-agreement-news-326215
(9) More information about the situation in Belgium and the Netherlands on the Dutch version of this article