The music industry recently scored a significant win in its battle against illegal Internet downloading. In a landmark decision which will have global repercussions, the Federal Court of Australia held that the owners and operators of the Kazaa file-sharing network were liable for the millions of copyright infringements that occur daily through illegal free downloading of recordings via that network.
This judgment reinforces the cold, hard truth about illegal Internet downloading - it's not cool, it's just theft. The decision confirmed, if ever there was any doubt, that these file-sharing networks are infringing copyright on a massive scale. And, in the process, are denying income to the recording artists and songwriters they claim to be supporting.
This so-called support has been roundly rejected by many artists, many of whom recently made a public statement of support for the Federal Court's decision. Artists as varied as Silverchair, Jet, George, Alex Lloyd and John Butler signed a statement condemning the theft that occurs on these networks: it directly impacts on their livelihood and they weren't afraid to say so publicly.
Of course, there are some artists who do choose to distribute their recordings via file-sharing networks; that is their decision and their right. But that does not legitimise a decision by members of the public to steal the work of other artists. More importantly perhaps, the court found that those who own and operate such networks are just as liable as the users who make the illegal copies. In other words, those who build lucrative businesses on the back of promoting and facilitating copyright infringement will be called to account.
Much of the debate around illegal Internet file sharing has proceeded on the basis that those who build the networks are simply developing new legitimate business models. In the process, many people who use such services have been conned into believing that they are not doing anything wrong. Somewhat incredulously, many even view such copying as an expression of support for the artists whose recordings they copy.
The Federal Court's decision blows those myths right out of the water.
The court has confirmed what we knew all along - it's theft. If we were talking about CDs rather than downloads from the Internet, it would be called shoplifting.
There are, inevitably, those who seek to support file-sharing networks, blithely asserting that they are the future of music distribution and that they provide artists with direct connections to their fans without the need for record companies. Equally inevitably, there are many unstated assumptions in such visions, most of which are simply untrue. Key among them is the suggestion that all recording artists have the ability and financial resources to produce high-quality recordings and music videos without the support of a record company or other financial backer: many of them don't and many of them don't want to.
What many artists do understand, nonetheless, is that the Internet opens up many possibilities for music distribution. Those who do not wish to sign contracts with recording companies can choose to distribute their self-funded recordings via the Internet. Quite a few have chosen this route and some have been very successful. Importantly, even artists who choose self-distribution typically want to get paid for their efforts. Many supporters of illegal file sharing skate across this fact and presume that all recording artists are happy to have their work given away. There is simply no sustainable business model in giving it away - someone has to pay the bills.
The broader economic picture is also often overlooked. Evidence presented at the Kazaa trial showed that industries responsible for the development of creative content - including the music and film industries - contributed $19.2 billion to the Australian economy in 1999-2000, representing about 3.3 per cent of gross domestic product. In addition, the industries employed 345,000 people.
The music industry is an enthusiastic supporter of new legal online distribution businesses. It is committed to doing all that it can to create an environment in which such businesses can establish and prosper to the benefit of both creators and consumers of music. The Federal Court's decision is an important milestone in achieving this objective.
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