Why the Pirate Bay verdict means sod-all for downloaders

Digital Music, Intellectual Property

pirate-bay-three.jpgThe RIAA, BPI, IFPI, MPAA and a million other acronyms, all greeted the Swedish court’s verdict against the Pirate Bay on Friday with the utmost of glee. I have no doubt that parties were held, and major label record execs probably had an excellent weekend, but there was one little thing in their reactions that interested me.

“There has been a perception that piracy is OK and that the music industry should just have to accept it. This verdict will change that.”

Those are the words of John Kennedy, chairman of the IFPI. I’ve picked them out because they illustrate wonderfully why the major record labels in their current state are still absolutely clueless about how filesharing works.

Trying to chop of the head of the file-sharing Hydra is utterly futile. It’s the world’s most massive game of whack-a-mole where it takes years for the copyright owners to swing the hammer and it takes hours for moles to pop up and down.

The pointlessness of the fight is illustrated wonderfully by the Pirate Bay’s statement today that they’re going to appeal. An appeal means that (until it’s complete) the court’s judgement is essentially worthless. It can’t be used as precedent.

That appeal will take several years and thanks to the speed at which innovation occurs in the filesharing community, by the time it’s complete The Pirate Bay will likely be a footnote in history. There’ll be another massive source of copyrighted content. The difference is that it’ll probably be legitimate.

In an interview today, Spotify’s UK head, Jon Mitchell, said that his company isn’t bothered about Last.fm, iTunes or any other download platforms. What it’s really competing against is piracy.

What Spotify knows, that the major labels still haven’t figured out, is that price is only one factor in the war for consumer’s ears. Catalogue, ease of use and speed are also incredibly important. Until Spotify came along, there was nothing that could touch filesharing networks for all four of those factors.

What Spotify did was to attack file-sharing on all four of those fronts. Spotify is free and it has the largest catalogue of any legitimate digital music service, so it’s as close as possible to piracy on that front. It’s also considerably easier for non-techy people to understand than Bittorrentm, which can, frankly, be quite confusing to newbies.

Lastly, it’s far quicker to start up Spotify, search and hit play than it is to go to The Pirate Bay, get the torrent, then hope there’s people seeding it, then wait for people to download before finally being able to play tracks. Consumers want software that just gets out of their way and lets them do what they want to do. File-sharing most certainly isn’t that.

The moment that a company comes along doing the same thing for TV shows and movies, piracy figures for those types of content will drop massively. The iPlayer is a great start, but it needs content from every network, every producer and every country.

What will eventually defeat piracy is a shift in people’s habits to access over ownership. If you can get content whenever you want, in whatever format you want, then you don’t need a copy sitting on your hard drive. That makes it much easier to deliver advertising along with the content, so greater revenues are possible for companies offering streaming.

It’ll require a mindset change among consumers, and a roll-out of mobile access to services that trust the user with a decent-size cache for use when out of signal range, but all of those are definitely within reach of the average consumer before a Pirate Bay appeal could ever be concluded.

The Pirate Bay verdict means nothing for record companies because the site stays up. It means nothing for the Pirate Bay’s administrators, because they’re appealing the verdict and so they’ll be stuck in legal limbo for years.

Lastly, it doesn’t mean anything for the general public, the downloaders, because they’re all slowly moving to services that offer access, rather than ownership. Companies that help facilitate that change will be the ones that I’ll be betting on in the next few years.

Duncan Geere
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