There are two main problems with these latest legal moves. First is the fact that the basic premise that P2P file-sharing is damaging the recorded music business is by no means proven. The most detailed research to date, published this year by two US academics, concluded that “downloads have an effect on sales which is statistically indistinguishable from zero, despite rather precise estimates. Moreover, these estimates are of moderate economic significance and are inconsistent with claims that file sharing is the primary reason for the recent decline in music sales.”
More worryingly, perhaps, is that the effects of these Acts, if passed, would be extremely far-reaching. For example, it is possible that selling any MP3 player or equivalent – Apple’s iPod, say – might be construed as “inducing” owners, including children, to swap files. Perhaps even an operating system without built-in, non-removable Digital Rights Management (DRM) would fall foul of the legislation.
The end-result would be a huge chill cast over both old and new technologies. The latter is particularly worrying, since P2P currently represents one of the most fertile areas of online experimentation. BitTorrent is beginning to revolutionise the way that many users download large files; the P2P approach also forms the basis of business software such as Groove as well as major research areas like grids and swarms.
What makes this kind of legislation pointless is that there is always a way to route around it. Just as the centralised Napster was replaced by the de-centralised Gnutella and KaZaA, so these would simply be dropped in favour of anonymous systems such as FreeNet, where policing is even harder. Banning P2P entirely is hardly an option, since the entire Internet is in some sense based on the idea. Far better would be for the music industry to recognise that the world has changed, and to follow the lead of companies like BMG, which plans to fight file sharing by reducing the price of its music CDs drastically. Ideally the major players would offer low-cost, CD-quality online music services without DRM, but that may be asking for too much.
Glyn Moody welcomes your comments.