Digital downloads: The 'age of free' is coming to an end

By Paul McGuinness
Three years ago, somewhere between U2’s album No Line on the Horizon and the 360 Degree world tour, I plunged into the raging debate over the future of music in the age of “free”.

My campaign has focused on the role of internet companies, and the crucial difference they could make if they confronted the systemic copyright infringement that has helped wipe out so many musicians, bands and labels in recent years. It has been a frustrating and slow-moving process. In many countries internet service providers (ISPs) have consistently and stubbornly resisted cooperation.

This week, however, from the world’s largest entertainment market, the US, comes good news. The biggest US ISPs have just agreed with music and film industries to introduce a new system of “copyright alerts”. These are warnings that, with escalating urgency, aim to nudge broadband users away from piracy towards downloading and streaming music from legitimate services. There will be the prospect of deterrent sanctions for those who repeatedly ignore the warnings.

This has been agonisingly slow in coming, but it is an important step forward in the international debate over music in the digital age. The idea of ISPs taking on obligations to stop copyright theft on their networks is moving into the mainstream.

The US is not the first country where ISPs have started to cooperate with rights holders. Similarly sensible thinking broke out in France in 2007, thanks to President Sarkozy. France, along with a growing number of other countries, including South Korea and most recently New Zealand, has introduced a so-called graduated response law, obliging ISPs to take proactive steps to help curb copyright abuse. The UK has passed its Digital Economy Act which, if it is implemented effectively, will go down a similar route.

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Paul McGuinness is the Manager of U2.


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