Fair prices, fair penalties

I’ve found it really hard to articulate my thoughts on this week’s hot topic, filesharing.
There’s no getting away from the fact that freely distributing copyrighted work is wrong; and wrongdoing must attract sanctions at some point. And in the chaotic, decentralised world of the internet, the only party who could reasonably be asked to apply such sanctions is the ISP. But on one side, you’ve got the music industry demanding protection, after years of having a pretty sweet deal; on the other, you’ve got the ISPs less than keen on becoming a police force (see TalkTalk’s blogged response). Both have commercial interests to protect, and principles to defend.
And of course, it doesn’t help if government is seen to be moving the goalposts midway through a consultation.
Writing on LabourList, Tom Watson talks about ‘the choice of accepting [the new reality] and innovating, or attempting, King Cnut-style, to stay the tide of change’. The Open Rights Group talks about ‘letting the market solve the problems … This is the wrong moment to go in this direction.’ I think both are right.
When Apple opened its iTunes store, I tried it, disliked it, and never went back. Nasty user experience, locked-down files in a non-universal format. But I made my first music purchases through Amazon.co.uk a couple of weeks back, and found it a very pleasurable experience. A fair price for a high-quality, unrestricted MP3 file. My purchases registered themselves automatically with Winamp and iTunes, and hence to my iPod (and anywhere else I might want to take them). Seamless, instant, perfect. I will be doing it again.
The music business screwed up by not recognising the implications of online sooner. Filesharing became too easy; and when online music sales finally happened, they put all their efforts into making it more awkward for the punters – DRM, proprietary formats, etc. And they’re expecting us to pay the price now.
But finally, the simplicity, convenience and fair pricing of Amazon’s model presents a challenge to the good people who found themselves filesharing even though they knew it was ‘wrong’. (And that’s without considering commercial, ‘legit’ sources of free online music like Spotify.)
I don’t believe you can argue on principle against sanctions for ‘hard core’ copyright infringers – whatever those sanctions may be, and however they are enforced. But it does now feel like we’re reaching a fair market proposition. A reasonable price for doing the right thing – coupled, inevitably, with an appropriate penalty if you don’t.