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Commentary: The time has come to legalise file-sharing

Tom Dunmore, Editor-in-Chief of Stuff Magazine, is pictured in this undated handout. REUTERS/Handout Stuff Magazine

(Tom Dunmore is Editor-in-Chief of Stuff Magazine. The views expressed are his own.)

LONDON (reuters.co.uk) - The new policy of sending a letter to people suspected of illegally downloading music isn’t going to save the music industry overnight.

But it may signal the start of a radical overhaul of the way we consume music. There’s no doubt that CD sales are plummeting and legal download services aren’t growing fast enough to fill the gap. It’s such a threat to the UK’s creative industries that the government has become involved.

And it seems the threat of legislation has been enough to force the UK’s six biggest internet service providers (ISPs) to choke back their reservations and agree to send letters to users of peer-to-peer file sharing services.

But what comes next? In France, a three-strikes-and-your-out law will soon force ISPs to cut the broadband connection of serial downloaders. Such punitive action, however, is doomed to failure. In these days of wireless networks, proving the identity behind an IP address is becoming very tricky indeed.

And increasing the risk to file sharers will only serve to drive them further underground to sharing services that will mask their identities. What’s more, draconian laws simply fuel resentment against a music industry that has spent the last decade fighting against the Internet rather than working with it. Having failed to solve its problems by shutting down popular music services and suing downloaders, it’s time for the music industry to change tack.

The only real solution is to legitimise the peer-to-peer services. Rather than fighting against music sharing, the music industry should issue licenses that allow royalties to be collected every time a song is shared. The snag, of course, is how to generate those royalties in the first place. The slow uptake of music subscription services proves it’s unfeasible to ask people to opt in to paying 10 pounds a month for music.

One alternative is advertising, but the preferred route of many within the music industry a controversial levy on broadband charges. Just as Canada adds a small tax to blank media such as CD and tapes, so the UK could add a tax to broadband, with the resulting funds going directly to the rights holders.

Legalising file-sharing may seem like a drastic step, but it has precedent. The truth is that many music technologies were deemed ‘illegal' - right up until they were licensed. Piano rolls, gramophones, radio and MP3 players were all the subject of legal cases brought by the music industry. Now they're just a source of income. It's about time that file-sharing stopped being seen as a problem, and started to be seen as a revenue stream. (Read Tom's blog at stuff.tv/blogs/future/)

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