BPI: Letter-Writing Campaign Not Getting Desired Results

In the early days of digital disruption, major label groups focused on controlling piracy through legal, legislative, and educational channels.

Up until recently, majors mostly regarded P2P as a problem that could be stuffed into a box, incinerated, and ultimately contained.   The highly-litigious RIAA led the way by chasing individual file-traders and copyright-unfriendly innovators, with mixed success.  Major labels also battled ISPs, a group that frequently brushed back attempts to compromise subscriber privacy and dampen the piracy party.

Now, the mood towards ISPs is suddenly more cooperative, on both sides of the Atlantic.  But access providers mostly remain unwilling to adopt label-friendly enforcement policies, at least those that carry bite.  In the United Kingdom, ISPs have agreed to send threatening letters to offending users, part of a multi-industry Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) forged in the summer of last year.  But a recent assessment by British label group BPI reveals lackluster early results.

According to information surfacing ahead of the weekend, the letters are simply too soft a method for discouraging piracy.  “A purely self-regulatory or voluntary approach to dealing with illegal file-sharing has been attempted between BPI and ISPs but, for various reasons, has not been successful,” the trade group submitted as part of a study being conducted by the UK-based Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR).  “The [Memorandum of Understanding] is not likely to achieve the objective of a significant reduction in illegal file-sharing unless it is underpinned by new statutory obligations on ISPs,” the group continued.

The disclosures came ahead of Midemnet in Cannes, where ISPs were a dominant discussion thread.  A central question is whether the internet access industry can forge agreements that ultimately help the music industry, or if a government role is needed.  “It’s naive to think that the government doesn’t have a role,” said Peter Jenner, emeritus president of the International Music Managers’ Forum (IMMF), during a heavily-attended panel.  “If not, they will witness a collapse of the content industries.”

Pretty heavy stuff, though the perception of an eroding music industry is stirring a governmental prod in Britain.  That pressure has already led to the letter-writing campaign, though according to one UK-based insider at Midem, further measures could be ahead.  That could include the creation of a dedicated governmental body specifically tasked with reducing file-sharing, according to the Financial Times.

Still, the old truism of business is that any government-imposed solution is far inferior to an inter-industry agreement, simply because lawmakers are less knowledgeable about the nuances of any particular sector.  Additionally, a more free-market perspective would note that the recording industry is really the one hemorrhaging, not related areas like publishing and live performance.

Of course, labels feel differently, but maybe ISPs can simply outlive the problem.  Nicholas Lansman, head of the UK-based Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA), suggested that the process of consumer reeducation could take years to complete.  “We are talking several years to persuade customers to change their methods, to convert people from P2P to legal services,” Lansman said.  Along the way, British ISPs (and ISPs in other countries) have reiterated their distaste for user disconnections or “three-strikes” approaches.

Several executives, including TAG Strategic chief Ted Cohen, wondered if the recording industry could survive the wait.  Others seemed burnt on the entire process, simply because the same issues, debates and disagreements seem to reappear every year at Midemnet.  In fact, one Reuters reporter questioned whether the trip was worth it this time around, simply because the topics are so repetitive.  Indeed, listening to representatives from the various trade groups is becoming a tiring exercise, simply because the platitudes and soundbites are relentless.

Feargal Sharkey, head of the freshly-created consortium UK Music, was as guilty as anyone of this at Midem.  But Sharkey pointed to ongoing discussions, and stressed that fresh solutions could emerge over the short term, outside of the government.  Specifically referencing the ISPA, Sharkey noted that “internal discussions are going on,” and held hope that fresh resolutions could “emerge in a matter of months,” or even sooner.

Report by publisher Paul Resnikoff in Cannes.