Alastair’s Place

Software development, Cocoa, Objective-C, life. Stuff like that.

Illegal Downloading, ISPs and Internet Bans

I’ve been dying to write about this for a while now but my hand was too painful to say anything on the subject.

On February 12th, the BBC published an article suggesting that the U.K. government is considering banning people from the ’Net if they persistently download illegally.

The comments on that article, as well as on Darren Waters’ blog post are, I think, pretty revealing. A large number of them seem to be attempting to justify illegal downloading, and a lot of these attempts centre on two arguments:

  1. The people this is hurting make (or have) too much money, and

  2. Prices are too high and more people would buy things if they were “more reasonable”

Both of these arguments are fallacious, as any copyright holder will tell you. The vast majority of copyright holders are not millionaires, and in fact, as one of the posters on the BBC’s site explains:

It is obviously a horrific situation that people's privacy be invaded and this must be addressed. BUT.I have run a small indie label and band for the last 30 years,and we're on the verge of going bust. I earned £6k last year, not enough to keep my family [cd/LEGAL download sales are a joke], yet I see tens of thousands of illegal downloads of our Cds and dvds. Unfortunately , if people can't see a 'value' for someones 'efforts' where there is a demand,most quality creative productions wil ceaseNick, swindon

There are lots of small businesses, and even individuals, who rely on copyright for their income. And even millionaires are not necessarily rich; seems a strange statement, perhaps, but it should be obvious to many people in the U.K. because of our massively inflated housing market, which has turned large numbers of ordinary people into paper millionaires simply because of the value of their homes. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they have any money, mind.

Plus, even in the few cases where they are rich, what gives anyone the right to infringe their rights as a result of their wealth? Are rich people suddenly undeserving of reasonable treatment?

As for the pricing argument, that has been discredited time and again, most recently by Radiohead who discovered that a substantial fraction (30% according to some reports) of the people who downloaded their album, In Rainbows, paid nothing at all. Of course, this would be no surprise to economic theorists, who have known how consumers react to product pricing for well over a century now (indeed, the ideas of supply and demand date back to the late 18th century and the ideas of people like Adam Smith).

Anyway, the ability to get ISPs to ban users who persistently infringe copyright would go some way to eliminating the inbalance that currently exists, which overwhelmingly favours infringers over copyright holders; presently, infringers’ privacy is considered more important in many jurisdictions than the fact that they are breaking the law, and since copyright holders have none of the legal powers that are afforded to criminal prosecutors, the status quo has resulted in copyright being effectively unenforceable, even for large corporations with deep pockets.

More recently, there has been suggestion of sanctioning ISPs who fail to take measures to address Internet piracy. This also seems eminently sensible and, to my mind at least, should extend to the ubiquitous file-sharing websites, who are hiding behind the safe-harbour legislation rather than employing the staff they need to properly screen uploads.

I just hope that they give consideration (a) to small copyright holders, rather than just the large corporates, and (b) to people making things other than just music and movies, who are sometimes forgotten in the heated debate surrounding this issue.