Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg

Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg
Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg © Gernot Keller, 2007
Blinkered Justice articles also appear on CrimeTalk and Government In The Lab

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Free music downloads: police and thieves - the thieves

Nipper hears His Masters Voice (c) NewYork1956
Using the term 'free music download' on www.google.co.uk, this is what my search result revealed.

On the first page of results, amongst the odd service that I am aware of, such as Spotify and we7, were a host of others including mp3raid, WuZAM and beemp3. In fact, the latter named entities ranked higher than the former services. Why?

I am writing this post with reference to the news that the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) closed down a music download website, RnBXclusive.com, on Tuesday. A man has been arrested, and bailed, on fraud charges. This follows the recent high profile arrest of Kim DotCom, who ran the music sharing website Megaupload.

SOCA had posted a message up on the defunct website declaring:
"As a result of illegal downloads, young, emerging artists may have had their careers damaged. If you have illegally downloaded music, you will have damaged the future of the music industry."
Who are the “young, emerging artists” who have had their careers damaged? Have they already signed a record deal? Is it with a major or independent label? Are they unsigned? Without them, is there no “future of the music industry”? Do SOCA know something that the music industry do not, because the music industry is unsure what the future holds.

Beyond these words, the assumption is that the “future of the music industry” will look much the same as it does now. Moreover, the statement presumes that illegal downloading, or more to the point, the availability of free musical content online is a bad thing. Is it?

Lady Gaga (c) pink_daisy
There is a coalition of artists who believe that the use of free music can be a means to building an audience. The likes of Lady Gaga gave away free music as part of her business model.

That does not mean that artists are happy at their works/copyright being abused, but equally, they are coming to terms with illegal downloading and file-sharing. A music industry think tank advocates artists giving their albums away for free, and discusses how artists might profit from it whilst simultaneously defeating the services that provide free downloads of their material.

Either way, artists appear not to want to criminalise those who download their material for free. From well-known artists in the UK, to smaller, independent artists in the U.S.A., they see state regulation of the internet as a bad thing for artists.

Recording artists have long been dealt a raw deal. After years of record companies offering a pittance to their artists for their work, the internet appeared to offer salvation and a chance to control their destinies.

However, recording artists receive an even smaller portion of the pie when signing up with the new digital record companies of today. The likes of Amazon, iTunes, Last.fm and Spotify pay their artists even less than their traditional counterparts. Just who is stealing from recording artists?

In the case of RnBXclusive.com, SOCA have decided that the thieves are largely males, aged 18-25, who have downloaded music from this site. However, as my search above demonstrates, there are a variety of sites where people can supposedly download music 'legally' and 'for free'.

The problem is that many operate outside of the UK's borders. Some supposedly operate legally within their own borders, but not necessarily within the laws of the in-country hosting internet service providers (ISPs). Therefore, it is difficult, if not nigh on impossible, to ascertain whether these services are 'legal' or 'illegal'.

Furthermore, they all appear high in Google rankings. How does that happen?

Whilst it may be partly explained by the inbound links and keywords used by the more nebulous sites, surely they can not be using any different links and keywords to those used by Spotify or Last.fm. Could the higher ranking of sites like mp3raid, WuZAM and beemp3 be explained by advertising? Are Google, and other search engines, profiting from marketing 'illegal' downloads?

(c) Surka
The Independent notes that RnBXclusive.com was largely funded by advertising. Therefore, the owner was generating his 'fraudulent' income from those advertising on his site. Surely then, just as individuals are supposed to be responsible for checking the 'legality' of the site that they use, advertisers too must he held equally, if not, more accountable, given that they sustained this business.

Given that the 'legality' of downloading free music is unclear, and that Google, a trusted means of sourcing information, promotes these sites above others, it seems somewhat disproportionate that individuals can be heavily punished for transgressing a very blurred line. Especially when those propping up these 'illegal' services financially do not appear to have been sought after in the same way.

Whilst the official narrative runs that it is the artists who are the victims, artists themselves are offering free music downloads to build up their followings. It is possible that 'illegal' downloading might also provide them with a means to take greater control of their works and their income streams. 

If this be the case, then it is the record companies that are set to lose the ability to control the market, and the profits generated from it, not the artists. Therefore, downloading music freely is not in the commercial interests of businesses that currently do very nicely from it. 

Artists have regularly been, and continue to be, victims of legal 'theft'. It just appears more culturally palatable to portray males, aged 18-25, as criminals, rather than the 'legitimate' enterprises making large sums of money from it.

You may ask yourself, well, how did we get here?...

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