29 January 2009

The Digital Britain Interim Report

I've quickly waded through the government's Digital Britain Interim Report and it doesn't really offer any solid conclusions, except that there will be more reports. There are, however, some interest comments in there and I've picked out a few I think are worth examining:

There is a clear and unambiguous distinction between the legal and illegal sharing of content which we must urgently address. But, we need to do so in a way that recognises that when there is very widespread behaviour and social acceptability of such behaviour that is at odds with the rules, then the rules, the business models that the rules have underpinned and the behaviour itself may all need to change.

This is the first time I can remember a government report even raise the possibility that, if there is a conflict between new technology and copyright laws, it might be best for the copyright laws to be scaled back, especially given that, in general, it doesn't appear that people believe there is anything seriously wrong with unauthorised sharing. Of course, there's no guarantee that the government won't end up making the rules more draconian, rather than less and I don't think it's realistic to expect any serious reduction in the scope of copyright in the final report, but I'm glad that the report has at least least acknowledged that introducing more stringent laws isn't the only way to resolve the conflict of interests.

The copying of content without permission by consumers is not new - it's been an unwanted companion of creative goods for as long as there have been means of copying material without paying.

Who decided that such copying is unwanted? It's clearly wanted by the person doing the copying, even if it isn't wanted by the copyright holder. Given that copyright was created for the benefit of the consumer rather than the copyright holder (or at least, that's how it was sold), it appears copying is a wanted companion of creative goods. Even if you are of the opinion that copyright encourages more creativity and therefore benefits consumers by giving them access to more creative works, it isn't clear cut. Shakespeare based much of his work on the work of others. On a more fundamental level, if copying had never been part of the human make up, we would have never been able to develop the languages which are fundamental to much of the work which we now put under copyright.

Entirely legitimate technologies such as file-sharing can be abused such that millions of people can access material, unlawfully but for free.

I'm pleased that the report acknowledges that file-sharing technologies are perfectly legitimate, when at lot of the propaganda has portrayed file-sharing as a bad thing, even if the copyright holder has given permission to share the file. The fact the first iteration of the BBC's iPlayer used P2P technology probably forced the government's hand on that one.

In the short and long term, the rights holders must find the innovations that once again enable them and their customers to respect each other's point of view.

I think that a very welcome reminder that the music and film industries have lost credibility by complaining about the impact of technology on their revenues, while at the same time completely refusing to adapt their business models to changing markets, instead relying on legislation and issuing threats to their potential customers. This anti-technology stance is nothing new; attempts by the film studios to have video recorders banned when they first appeared now seem ridiculous when you think of the whole new market that was opened up for them. The arguments the arguments they are using now are much the same as they used them.

The music industry could do worse than take a leaf out of the porn industry's book. As porn doesn't have the same lobbying power as the mainstream film and music industries, it has to adapt faster, as it has less scope to rely on legislation to protect its market. That's why porn was making taking advantage of home video players while the mainstream studios were still fighting them.

Porn has managed to survive the advent of the internet and I can't see why music can't do the same. I acknowledge that porn previously had limited distribution channels compared to the music industry and so it probably had more to gain from the advent of the internet, but on the flip side, musicians have a greater scope to earn money from live performances than porn stars do!

In the section addressing the issue of child protection and the ability to access inappropriate content (however you define that), the report says:

There should be a clearer role for trusted brands that provide a guarantee of the nature of the content that may be accessed through their product (e.g. the approach Apple has taken to making available applications that run on iPhone). This framework, combined with media literacy initiatives, will support the greater parental and personal responsibility essential to realise safely and effectively the full potential of the on-line world.

How on earth is personal responsibility aided by using technology which deliberate limits what you can do with it? As you may have worked out from some of my other postings, my view is exactly the opposite; I prefer technology where the owner decides what software is run on it, not the manufacturer. It also easy to see that the iPhone won't do the things that the report implies. Apple have restricted the range of applications that can run on the iPhone for their own reasons, but as it has a web-browser, that will have almost zero impact on the ability of the user to access on-line content. If anything, the locked-down approach makes users less likely to take personal responsibility, as it can give them a false impression that the hardware is capable of doing all their thinking for them.

Overall, the report doesn't make me optimistic about the eventual conclusions that the final reports will reach. It hints at DRM as a way to resolve unauthorised sharing, in spite of the fact that it's failed in practice and it's being increasingly abandoned for music. DRM is one of the technologies which drove a wedge between the industry and the consumer in the first place; it created as situation where the mp3 files that people were illegally downloading weren't just cheaper, they were better. Any attempt to push people to use hardware or software which is locked down would be a retrograde step. In common with many government reports, it focuses on the large corporate players in the market (media companies, ISP's, etc.) but pays lip-service to the individuals who use the internet and listen to music. Any approach which views the consumer as being of minor importance in a market is doomed to fail and rightly so.

I'll probably post a bit more on this subject when I've read through the document again.

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