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via MATEUS_27:24&2 5's photostream (Flickr)

This week, the French government decided to adopt a”three strikes” policy against illegal file sharers on the  Internet. Effectively, it means that if you are caught illegally sharing music, you risk a large fine and a one year Internet ban. The law is soon to be adopted in UK, and there are signs that other European countries will follow with similar laws of their own.

On one hand, government action seems reasonable. Musicians and music companies spend significant time and energy creating and promoting new music. It seems unfair that, after all this hard work, the product of their efforts is subject to a free-for-all with no obvious flow of money back to the producers. There is a parallel here with common theft.  Arguments such as “the record companies make enough money, so a free copy of my own won’t make a difference” are equally applicable in the case of shoplifting, for instance.

On the other hand the Internet is totally unsuitable for a pay-per-copy model. It’s impossible to police without draconian measures that have impacts way beyond the stated intent of preventing piracy. From the viewpoint of the file sharers, it costs the music companies nothing to distribute their songs and the products are infinitely available, so the whole meaning of theft needs to be re-assessed in this new digital environment. There is also the argument that copyright restrictions greatly limit creativity in the digital realm, although this issue applies to many physical products also.

Personally, I don’t file share. I’m happy enough to get what music I want through iTunes without resorting to BitTorrent or Limewire. Call me a traditionalist, but the idea of having thousands of illegally obtained video and music titles clogging up my hard disk space is somewhat distasteful. If I like a piece of music, I’ll buy it, and I don’t have a problem with that.  However I can also understand the argument that, with the Internet, the world has changed. I think the idea of limitations being placed on personal usage of digital products (i.e. Digital Rights Management, or DRM) repulsive. I think there are serious issues with governments and private firms monitoring our Internet usage. I’m inclined to agree that a radical re-assessment of the whole business is necessary.

With the Internet, we seem to be moving into a world of openness, rather than protection. Openness implies sharing, collaboration, continuous improvement and mass-participation. Although it’s obvious that many traditional businesses are suffering in these circumstances, it’s not obvious to me why there would be a whole-scale business implosion over time. Indeed the Internet might well create new ways of generating wealth, through, for instance, extension of brand image and mind-share leading to greater demand for performances, merchandise and premium downloads.  The examples of Radiohead and Trent Reznor certainly point to some interesting ideas in this area.

I’m interested in your thoughts on this. Is file-sharing just a polite word for stealing or is it symptomatic of a changing world order? What are your thoughts about file-sharing and why you think it’s good or bad?

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