Despite all the obvious economic benefits offered by the internet, digital piracy is proving to be a huge collective pain in the butt for several industries. Critics might argue these industries all need to pipe down, slim down and adapt to new realities – but most people also accept that artists and journalists still need to be paid at the end of the month. Debating Europe sat down with Francis Gurry, Director of the UN World Intellectual Property Organisation, and asked him about the state of digital piracy.
First up, is the problem getting worse, or have we turned a corner yet?
I’m not sure we’ve turned a corner. But I think the problem is becoming clearer and the solutions more apparent. I believe that digital piracy is really a phenomonen of profound structural change, and a product of the most important change since the introduction of the printing press. All content is migrating to the internet. So music downloads, of course, are very difficult to control. Films, increasingly, as bandwidth permits, are being streamed. And print, of course, is changing – with ebook readers and tablets now very user-friendly. We’re going to have to get used to a world with no more printed newspapers.
Parallels with the printing press don’t bode particularly well for the media industry. Is it setting itself up as the Catholic church, struggling in the face of reformation? Ceci tuera cela. The printing press brought about decades of bloody conflict in Europe until a new order was finally settled upon with the Peace of Westphalia. How can we avoid a digital war of ideologies, where the bodycount is measured in job cuts and bankruptcies on the one hand and fines and blocked internet connections on the other? What’s the answer?
The answer is that there’s no simple answer. This involves a vast change that requires some legislative measures. It must be as easy to buy content as it is to download it illegally. It’s going to require cultural changes. It’s going to require better business models, and we’re seeing movement in that direction.
What’s the scale of the issue? Are we talking about the loss of whole industries?
I think it’s a very big issue. The Future Exploration Network that has done a timeline (PDF) of the extinction of the newspaper, and they predict that newspapers in their current form will start to become irrelevant from 2017 in the US to 2040 globally. We have to work out a viable way to sustain news coverage. Amongst their cost structure are all the foreign correspondents who collect news as well as those who analyse it. All of that is a cost structure for which the traditional model cannot cope.
We hear about legal frameworks being tweaked to cope with new advances in technology, but are existing legal frameworks really the problem? Theft is already a crime in all countries. Isn’t the issue more that government and industry are simply struggling to keep up with new technologies and how they’re redefining the market?
That’s a feature of the landscape, yes. Technology is ahead of the response – and it’s not just a legislative problem. Maybe you can tweak laws here or there in some parts of Europe – but I think fundamentally the infrastructure, in terms of the virtual roads and networks, has to change. I think most people agree that you should be able to go online and get in one click a global licence to use a book or a film or whatever it might be. That is not possible, uniformly, and to get there will be a challenge.
Concretely, though, what do we need to do?
I think we have to start with culture. I get criticised for saying this, but we need to make society responsible for this problem. What’s at stake here is something very fundamental: how are we going to finance culture in the 20th century in the digital environment? I think we all agree what the objectives should be, and we want to reconcile two contradictory values: making available on the widest possible scale good content – and the other objective is that we want to finance this content. If we don’t have composers and song-writers and authors because they can’t make a living out of it, our culture will be poorer.
There has been a lot of controversy around the question of cutting off people’s internet access if they persist in illegally downloading content. Aren’t there all sorts of problems with this approach? Such as infringing the privacy of the user (by snooping on what sort of things they’re downloading) or taking away their basic right to use the internet?
Perhaps we have to go back to the social contract: the internet is a public facility that anybody can use as long as they don’t do certain things. You can’t use the internet for widespread fraud, for example. There are certain limits that we need to stick to; it is important to accept copyright as a basic clause of the use of the internet. If somebody is a repeated offender, and there is a due process that is followed properly, it doesn’t seem to contravene questions of rights. Now, whether this sort of sanction is actually effective is another question.
Going back to the question of changing culture – is this actually feasible? Is it really possible to change a culture when people have become used to downloading content for free?
It’s not something that can be done overnight. If you provide somebody with easy and cheap means to access music, however, then the legitimate market grows. At the end of the day, it can’t be free, because there is a cost involved in the production of the music. How do you change that culture? You have to make it easier to download content legitimately, and you have to make people aware that artists all need to eat and they have families that need to be supported.
What do YOU think, then? What should be the response to piracy in Europe? Tougher sanctions for offenders? Greater ease of access to legal content? Let us know in the form below and we’ll take your suggestions to policy-makers and experts for their reaction.
Francis Gurry is an Australian national and Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) – one of the 16 specialised agencies of the United Nations.