If the Digital Economy Bill fails, we'll all pay

Danuta Kean is a journalist and publishing analyst whose work appears in national newspapers and specialist magazines. Follow her on Twitter at @Danoosha.

In a year when the iPod moment for books looks increasingly likely to happen, failure to pass the Digital Economy Bill isn’t a lost opportunity, it’s a tragedy.

Opposition is growing to the UK government’s Digital Economy Bill, which includes a “three strikes and you’re out” clause to deal with Internet piracy. The Guardian reports “strong criticism” within the House of Lords to the plan to cut the Internet access of persistent file-sharers.
These latest objections centre around concern by businesses and institutions, including public libraries, that they could be caught out if the penalties are introduced. An open letter signed by, among others, the British Library, states: “Because public institutions often provide internet access to hundreds or thousands of individual users, the complexity of our position in relation to copyright infringements must be taken into consideration.
“If this is not done, a public institution such as a library, school or university’s internet connection as a whole could be jeopardised, resulting in loss of internet access to large sections of the public, particularly the 15 million citizens without an internet connection at home.”
The news should concern anyone involved in book publishing and distribution, because anything that threatens to slow progress of the bill through parliament means this landmark legislation is unlikely to be passed before the General Election. If that happens the chance of it being introduced by an incoming government are very slim indeed.
Last year John Whittingdale, Conservative MP and chair of the culture, media and sports committee, told me: “If this issue is not tackled before the election, an incoming Conservative government will be confronted with a huge agenda and a stack of manifesto commitments and one would have to say, being realistic, this is unlikely to be a priority.”
With the Tories ahead in the polls, Whittingdale’s prediction looks likely to come true.
In a year when the iPod moment for books looks increasingly likely to happen, failure to pass the Digital Economy Bill isn’t a lost opportunity, it’s a tragedy. Aside from the understandable concerns of access providers, objection to “draconian” punishment centre on the social implications of cutting off net access in a society increasingly dependent on the web.
Well, hello! If it didn’t hurt, it wouldn’t be a punishment.
Let’s get some perspective here. The bill is needed because peer2peer file-sharing poses a very real threat to the global creative economy, including the nascent ebook industry. Piracy has already decimated the music industry – it is responsible for a 30% decline in revenues over the past six years, according to the latest figures from the IFPI, which represents the international recorded music industry.
Those who claim file-sharing is a blow against big business that does not harm small, independent players, should think again. The IFPI’s figures provide a salutary lesson: bore down to local market data and you find that between 2004 and 2009 Spain, which has one of the highest rates of illegal file-sharing in Europe, witnessed sales by local artists in the top 50 drop by an estimated 65%. In France, which recently introduced legislation against pirates similar to that proposed in the UK, local artist album releases fell by 60% over the same period. According to the IFPI, a quarter of France’s internet population downloads illegally
Ah but books are different, you might think. Well, no. A study released last month by Attributor, whose FairShare Guardian service monitors the internet for pirated content, provided startling data on the impact of file-sharing on books. It estimated that publishers were losing as much as $3bn to online book piracy. You didn’t misread that: it said three BILLION dollars, more than the total value of the UK book market. As more readers move to digital formats, that figure will only get worse.
You see, despite the way it is reported, the campaign against online piracy is not just about money. It is about culture, and the ability of smaller players – be they publisher or author – to sustain their work.
If the music industry is anything to go by, it is not the J K Rowlings, Stephanie Meyers or Dan Browns who will suffer if peer2peer file sharing becomes rampant in books. It is the already beleaguered midlist authors, whose work already struggle to find a place in a market dominated by multi-million pound global hitters and celebrities.
Piracy is a huge and growing problem that needs to be tackled now. Objections to the use of harsh penalties for the worst offenders fly in the face of evidence that shows that file-sharing has dropped sharply in countries where account suspension is used as a penalty of last resort.
A government crackdown in Sweden introduced early last year had an immediate impact. Sixty percent of users of file-sharing sites stopped completely or significantly reduced their downloading. The Swedish law demands internet service providers provide copyright holders with details of service users who share files, which opens the way for prosecution.
Britain is only the latest country to follow the Swedish lead. In France tough penalties, including account suspension, have already come into place. Legislation is before the House of Representatives in the US, and the European Parliament is also working on draft legislation to deal with the problem although it is expected to drop plans for account suspension.
If the Digital Economy Bill falls at the last hurdle, Britain will be left behind. And for those of us producing work that other people wish to steal, that will cost us dear.

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Danuta Kean

Danuta Kean is books editor of Mslexia and a respected publishing expert and journalist. Her work appears regularly in national newspapers, including the Financial Times and Independent on Sunday. She is a regular speaker at festivals, interviewing authors and revealing the inner workings of a trade that seems opaque to many writers. Follow her on Twitter at @Danoosha.

18 thoughts on “If the Digital Economy Bill fails, we'll all pay

  • I write as a hobby in my ‘spare time’, but spend a great deal of time constructing each book, so there’s a bit of sweat and blood buried in the lines. Stealing intellectual property is in some ways a compliment to the writer, although one that doesn’t encourage authors to keep producing. I feel that the punishment should fit the crime.
    I would not want to punish potential fans by taking away their Internet rights. I’m an Internet-only publisher and this would end any chance of their purchasing my books. The proper punishment to me seems to be requiring them to pay the author for the book plus a small penalty fee. In other words, make these bargain hunters risk paying more than they would have paid had they purchased the book honestly. The big time distributors will risk paying more than wholesale for their entrepreneurial efforts.
    Risk? You can’t catch all of them. Benefit? You keep your fans and they help pay your overhead. You also don’t drive the bad guys underground or make whistle-blowers fear for their life. I don’t see how taking away their Internet rights helps me at all.
    I’m an unknown author who values word-of-mouth even from these ‘criminals’, so long as they like my books. Of course, I’m not expecting to pay the rent with my book sales either. It’s just another way to look at it.

  • Danuta is right in the article. I’ll have to get some information from my own articles to show just how seriously filesharing affects authors and, unlike in the music business, authors only have the words on the page to get them an income.
    The reaction against the Digital Economy Bill is mainly based around a false assumption that you can’t stop filesharing, or that you can’t protect yourself if you’re running a public wifi hotspot where people can be downloading files illegally. You can. It also makes it seem as if you’re at risk in your own home if people hack into your network or if members of your family download files illegally. You can protect your computer against all of this, it doesn’t cost much, and you’re only obliged to be able to show who downloaded the files. You do need to be able to keep that record and it’s not hard with the right software.
    You will need to be able to show who downloaded files and it’s possible to get inexpensive security software, or to subscribe to a service that can handle this for you. The same kind of software can block malicious websites and filesharing websites. Public networks like libraries can do this and it’s not even expensive to do it at home.
    It is stealing and has an effect on authors and publishers that can’t be ignored. Internet Service Providers can already disconnect your service if you illegally download files, and a documentary on TV already showed it happening. Public wifi hotspots have already had massive fines and their service disconnected because customers illegally downloaded files on their network. It isn’t new. The penalties already exist.
    The Digital Economy Bill is making it more efficient. I think the people raising fear about it are using tactics to make people think it’s impossible to fit in with the regulations. It isn’t. And the penalties already exist and are used.

  • A Writer

    So this bill is saying that if one person in the house is illegally sharing files, then the whole house is shut down? What if the parent (s) of said offender is wholly supported through a job that is dependent on internet access (say web design). What happens then? With schools increasing workloads for kids, internet research is all but required to complete schoolwork.
    I also doubt the statistics provided by a company that is solely focused on making clients fear the “boogeyman”. The music industry has completely mishandled their decline. There are many reasons for it including people just not wanting to pay for a whole album that they only like a few songs. This is why iTunes and others have done well.
    What is needed is a new delivery system. Deterrants are all well and good, but will not be the answer. DRM, for example, has both increased piracy and decreased buying because tech savvy people refuse to have something they pay for tied to one distribution channel (ipod, computer, etc). If they pay for it, they should be able to move it from PC to iPod and back if they feel like it. Even Apple dropped DRM eventually.
    This will play out the same way with eBooks as more eReaders come on the market. Just like VHS dominated Beta-Max a standard file format will emerge and that the very least all eReaders will need to support it (and allow easy conversion from their own locked formats) in order to be successful. Companies like Amazon with its Kindle are doing the same thing as what publishers are doing with the hardcover version of their book. This is where their money is made.
    Piracy will not go away though, with cases like Pirate Bay, may lessen to some degree. The real way to combat it is with reasonable pricing. The eBook market is still relatively new. True, it has been around for at least ten years or so, but it is only now becoming widespread through better devices and more content availability. The book publishing world will struggle with how to handle it, but hopefully it will learn the hard lessons from the music industry. Punishing consumers is not the way to a healthy bottom-line. They will revolt. Besides, most pirates are people who would not have bought the product anyway. The other issue with this is ownership. If you cannot take the book with you from one device to another (an actual file to transport) than ownership in the traditional sense does not exist. The fact that any company can remove a book that you “purchased” as Amazon has done at least once means that it is not owned like a physical copy is owned.
    Providing easier, more cost effective ways to get books into the consumers’ hands will in the end deal the largest blow against piracy (at least the kind that actually affects sales). Books are different fom music in that a book is the product whereas in music, the collection of songs is that industry’s product. A book is always singular, and (except for short story collections) cannot easily be separated into individual items. I am sure that there will be publishers who try to sell chapters like iTunes does songs (some already do), but that will have very little impact on buying habits or piracy. The majority of people will not buy a book one chapter at a time.
    To get back to the higher-level subject of the discussion, this type of legislation is usually made by those who do not actually understand the ramifications of nor the underlying working of the industry they are making laws about. They are listening to lobbyists (another barnacle / leech on the butt of society). While something does need to be done to allow creators / artists / publishers to make a living, these heavy handed type of measures are the wrong way to go about it.
    This is in the publishers hands to fix, not government.

  • Helen Taylor

    Persistent offenders who steal from shops are banned from entering those shops. If I owned a shop and someone stole from me once, let alone three times, I would not want that person to have access to my shop to be able to steal from me again. Following that logic, it makes perfect sense to me that people who steal content on the Internet should not have access to repeat the offence. They are thieves; they should be punished.

  • Susan Hicks

    Thank you so much for this article Danuta. I agree with you and I agree with everything Rocky says. Three strikes and you’re out seems more than fair to me. Theft is theft is theft.

  • As a published author I support Danuta’s pov. Illegal downloading of books is theft. Authors are paid a royalty of pennies per book sale and thus need to sell many many copies of their boks in order to make a living. There are more published authors earning £5,000 and less pa from their writing than there are authors who earn over £100,000. Tbe publishing industry employs people – ordinary people who are dependent on the wage they earn from book sales – warehousemen, secretaries, printers, distributors. book strore workers, packers at Amazon etc.
    I can appreciate that to those who do not know how the publishing industry works and who see articles about rich authors getting large advances it might seem ‘okay’ to read their books for free and to enable others to do so, but by doing this they are cutting off the money that spreads down the chain to help new authors. Ultimately if piracy continues the only people who will be able to afford to write are those with a separate income – not ordinary people like then and me. Is that really what they want? I dont think so. A good workman – or woman – is worthy of their hire – if you want to read a book then borrow it for free fromthe library or buy, don’t steal the words – and the food – out of the mouths lf those who work in our industry.

  • Nice one, Richard. We should give up ownership of our property, so you won’t be guilty of stealing it.

  • Visiting a pirate site this week where my latest book was being offered for download free, there was a place where I could complain about someone spamming the site, or about indecency in any material. Nowhere could I complain that my book was being stolen by everyone who downloaded it. Worse, I’m somehow the bad guy for making a fuss by people who would never consider stealing a physical book from a bookstore or library.
    My question is this. Do these people who believe that “art should be free” work for free themselves? Do they turn up at the office every day and just shrug when there’s no money in the bank to pay them because everything they made was stolen? How do they pay their bills. Is what they do more valuable than the writer, the muscian, the artist whose work they want to enjoy, but don’t want to pay for? Try getting away with that argument at the supermarket.

  • Erin

    Internet piracy is plain old fashion stealing.
    One wonders how many of these modern, Internet using, thieving cow-persons would think it acceptable for the owners of the stolen property to send their gang of rednecks around to bash the thief senseless, or string them up, like everyone else did in the ‘good old’ original wild-west.
    I’m pleased another country is opting to address Internet piracy with a, responsible, and workable solution to address a very serious, International, threat on civilised social values.

  • I agree absolutely with Danuta and think it’s a well-expressed article.
    I’m horrified that so many people take lightly the stealing going on via such piracy, whether of music or books. If the thieves lose their Internet privileges, too bad. Me, I’d lock them up in prison if they persisted after being warned. I think they’d be getting off lightly just losing access to the Internet.
    I earn a living as an author because I work ten-hour days six days a week and therefore produce three books a year. I don’t see why I should be expected to give away the results of that extremely hard work for nothing.
    I’m not up at the top of the bestsellers with JK Rowling (good luck to her) and am not rich. I need the money I earn to live on. Surprise, surprise – creative people need to eat, pay mortgages and cover all the other daily expenses.
    The downloaders are fooling themselves if they think they’re hurting big companies – the ones they’re hurting most are hard-working authors like me.
    Keep on speaking out, Danuta!

  • lithakazi mhaga

    coming from a country where even the most basic education is not available to everyone, the, now, much needed web is far beyond reach. it is a privilage, an honour even, to experience what a computer and the internat can do.
    taking that right to accessing information, and gaining knowledge, away can be lilkened to physically shackling a person and holding them prisoner. today we celebrate the release of nelson mandela from prison. i think what’s happening is as barbaric as apartheid itsself.

  • Rocky

    It should surprise nobody that people who haunt the net are 99% in favour of getting everything they can for free. They talk in this vague way about “embracing a new technology” without ever offering a single credible way of creating a working economy around this brave new technology that will support a creative workforce. We are all supposed give up our claim to intellectual property and have faith the technology gods will reward us somewhere down the line–a new digital variant of pie in the sky when you die. Sorry, but I have mortgage and grocery bills that require payment right now. To me it’s simple: intellectual property is just as reaal as material property. You can no longer come into my house and load up your digital wheelbaroow with my intellectual property than you can with my iPod and stereo and widescreen TV. If people have found a way to do this without either being controlled or realizing they are in fact committing theft, then the government needs to take the kind of action Sweden and France have taken to bring them back down to reality. Either we do this or the information economy collapses.

  • Richard

    In the very early days of the motor car, the law required a man to walk ahead of it waving a red flag (to warn pedestrians). As we all know now, the law was soon changed to meet the the then ‘new technology’ of transport.
    To day it is not the Internet (the new technology of communications) that needs to be constrained – but the laws of copyright that need to change. That’s a whole separate debate.
    But the idea of three strikes and you are out – is simply a crazy concept. Those who thought this one up are so clearly lacking in Internet knowledge for cutting some one off is naive in the extreme. Anyone can acquire a new e-mail account anywhere and for free – and anyone can use ‘Internet cafes’.

  • I agree with all of the above comments. Of what should be of a more pressing concern to the author is that this bill will not help the publishing industry one jot. The file sharers will always be one step ahead of whatever measures, technical or otherwise that are put in place. The Government knows this, it’s why the ability to modify copyright legislation by statutory instrument was sought.
    Traditional publishers need to realise that the genie will not go back in the bottle, that people will not “unsee” the Internet and embrace newer business models that are fit for the digital age. Attempting to replicate the physical world in the offline one is futile. Staying relevant means being in a different business to what went before, bitter as that might be for some to swallow.

  • This legislation is gift-wrapped with worthwhile notions that conceal a load of protectionist, stultifying, guilty-until-proven-innocent half-assery that would cause immense damage to free access to broadband internet for many people. At a fragile time where the beneficial spread of wireless internet coverage still leaves us with many more dark-spots than light; a threat of permanent disconnection for anyone providing this service is a disaster. Defendants will be cut off summarily, and be charged to even appeal the decision. It is grotesque.
    If anything will be a driving force for piracy, it will be the ludicrously small price differential between printed and digital products. The publishing industry may be celebrating Macmillan’s victory over Amazon, but when discounted pricing for an actual physical product makes it cheaper to buy than a bundle of data that has negligible production and distribution fees, and nothing physical to show for the expense, it looks like profiteering. That’s plenty to trigger the artificial sense of entitlement that people use to rationalise away piracy.
    If people won’t risk filesharing at home, they’ll do it wherever internet access is offered, and with the odious measures the DRB insists on as punishment, the days of free internet access will be numbered. The notion that such ill-thought out legislation should be given a free pass just because it’s time is limited is a disastrous methodology for law-making.

  • I’m very much in favour of creatives, and the companies that connect them to the market, being paid for their work but this bill has several major problems.
    It proposes a penalty – losing web access – without a clear judicial process and, apparently, without any presumption of innocence.
    It shares liability – in a vague way – for the offence of illicit filesharing between the individual and any public organisation that provides an internet service. The risk of prosecution could force all such bodies to remove this service depriving the poorest of internet access just at the point when it is becoming increasingly difficult to engage fully in society without it.
    It apparently enables the Secretary of State to improvise new rules and penalties regarding digital copyright without oversight by parliament.
    Vague, badly-designed and with the potential to be socially regressive, this can not be our best shot at dealing with the problem of illegal filesharing. Publishers, and anyone who works in a creative rights industry, need the existing copyright laws to become clearer, easier to understand and simpler to use by all parties; not more fuzzy, more complex and apparently subject to capricious policy change.

  • I too disagree with Danuta Kean on this issue, and, like Keith above, find the three strikes law reprehensible. Although there’s no doubt that the publishing industry is changing, the changes to new (digital) formats presents opportunities to publishers and authors, as such technological revolutions in other industries have always done. The reactionary arguments being put forward (almost worthy of the Daily Mail in some cases), and the dreadful knee-jerk legislation being pushed through on an already over burdened, over scrutinised, over regulated populace are shameful.
    As Keith says: “Pulling down the shutters, calling out the dogs, and generally behaving like paranoid accountants is NOT the way to proceed.” – I couldn’t agree more!

  • As a “beleaguered midlist author” can I just say that I couldn’t disagree more with Danuta Kean on this. The proposed “three strikes” law is an affront to natural justice, and should be resisted by everyone with any regard for fairness and reasonable repsonse.
    If, as writers, we want to protect our work and our paltry incomes, we’d do well to avoid the mistakes of the music industry rather than repreat them.
    I’d like to see that “study” released by Attributor. Can we have a link please? It’s immediately obvious to me that Attributor is a commercial enterprise with an interest in worrying rights holders about levels of infringement, as it sells software to protect against it. This is hardly a reliable objective source for figures such as those quoted.
    Danuta Kean states that ” … Swedish law demands internet service providers provide copyright holders with details of service users who share files, which opens the way for prosecution”. This may well be the case, but that is very different from the law proposed in the UK, in which there will effectively be no prosecution as it is usually understood, just the disconnecting of an individual (or household, in what would effectively be collective punishment) after a series of untested allegations.
    There is a opportunity at the moment for writers, publishers and booksellers to engage creatively with a readership that is changing, and embracing new technology. Most people, despite Danuta Kean’s assertions, do not want to steal books. They are sensible intelligent people who want to support and encourage good writing becuase good writing is what they’re interested in. Pulling down the shutters, calling out the dogs, and generally behaving like paranoid accountants is NOT the way to proceed.

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