The Digital Economy Bill will have precisely the opposite of its desired effect. The Bill will ignite the development of tools that make it easier for people to access music, films and other copyright-protected material for free and undetected, defeating any attempt to protect copyright.

That was the message to MPs and Peers today at a briefing in Westminster organised by TalkTalk, the UK’s largest provider of broadband to homes.

Already there are dozens of such tools available, developed by latter day Robin Hoods who in many cases are not motivated by money.

It is not known what proportion of copyright-protected content is accessed using these new tools but research by the BPI suggests people are migrating away from traditional P2P (which can be monitored, albeit at great expense) and using these other tools instead (1).

Examples of these tools include:

  • Applications which scan thousands of internet radio stations, and in a few hours download tracks from selected artists and then catalogue them
  • Services which effectively conceal users’ IP addresses, allowing them to download material without detection
  • Websites which stream “pay to view” sporting events broadcast outside the UK
  • Tools which allow users to ‘rip’ content from on demand TV and music services such as iPlayer

MPs and Peers were today (Tuesday 26th January) given a chance to see some of these tools and applications in action at a briefing entitled Principles and Practicalities of Copyright Protection, held in Westminster today (Tuesday). They also had the chance to hear from four organisations – Which?, Liberty, Consumer Focus and Open Rights Group – about the damaging effect of the Digital Economy Bill on human and consumer rights.

“The measures in the Digital Economy Bill will hasten the migration away from P2P, ignite the development of new tools and popularise the notion that stealing content is socially acceptable, akin to breaking the speed limit by one or two miles per hour,” said Charles Dunstone, chief executive of TalkTalk. “The inevitable consequence of persisting with this legislation will be to increase the moral chasm between labels and fans and between government and citizens.”

TalkTalk has published a series of case studies which show that people who develop tools which can be used to access content illegally are frequently not motivated by money. Rather, they are irritated by digital rights management (DRM) restrictions placed on content by labels and studios.

“Content owners really frustrate music and film fans by allowing material to be downloaded only to one device or used in only one format,” said Dunstone.

“Most fans grudgingly put up with it but some are smart enough to develop applications which allow content to be copied from one format or device to another. And that is the genesis of many of the tools which are currently out there. If the Digital Economy Bill becomes law, more tools will emerge and they will be simple enough for anyone to use.

“Copyright infringement is illegal. We do not encourage or condone it. But we live in the real world and it is clear that the Digital Economy Bill is futile and will only hasten the development of more beneath-the-radar tools and applications.

“The old model just cannot work in the digital age. Once content is digitised it effectively becomes freely and easily available to anyone who wants it. That is the stark reality the content industry has to confront.

“Record labels and film studios need to find new ways of persuading fans to pay for their content. Those that can’t find new ways of making money in the digital age won’t survive. They will be replaced by new ventures which see the online environment as an opportunity rather than a problem.”

While some high profile artists such as Bono and Lily Allen have spoken in favour of disconnecting people accused of copyright infringement, other celebrities have registered their vehement opposition.

Stephen Fry has used Twitter to urge his followers to sign TalkTalk’s petition on the Number 10 website. At the time of writing the petition has been signed by almost 32,000 people.(2)

“I’m no defender of systematic deliberate criminal downloading,” said Stephen Fry, “but in my estimation the government’s proposed Copyright Protection Law is ill-conceived, constitutionally outrageous, morally unfair and epically foolish.

“This is not the way to protect and strengthen the creative music, film and TV industries – it is a way further to alienate and antagonise the very people on whom those industries depend.

“Large scale criminal P2P downloaders will certainly be smart enough to avoid attention while the innocent or small-time (most of whom are good customers) will be penalised without recourse to the due process of the law. I shake my head in sad disbelief that Britain could seriously be contemplating going down a path like this.”

Editors’ notes

  1. Harris Interactive for the BPI, February 2009
  2. TalkTalk has also run a competition, judged by Stephen Fry, calling for individuals to create content opposing the Digital Economy Bill. Entries can be found out: