Monday, April 20, 2009

Spotfiy's the difference

While undoubtedly the most high profile filesharing courtcase to date, Pirate Baygate has this weekend also become one of the leading global news stories. Sir Paul McCartney has brought the debate closer to the UK with his comments to the BBC, judging the verdict 'fair'; the Guardian has poured scorn on the ruling that will see four Swedes spend a year each in jail and pay (or not pay) in excess of $3m to the undernourished record conglomerates; while forums, Twitterati and online communities the world over have vowed to continue with their illegal downloading efforts. You only have to read the reaction of BBC website users to realise just how marginalised the support for the record companies is.

For one thing, Pirate Bay has been heralded in many places in the last few days for its innovation; it is a central location for links to torrents from which its users - which numbered 22 million in February - can download free music, film and television files. It represents the height of the digital revolution in accessing and distributing music. It stands as a beacon against the record companies who still want to charge £10 or more for physical CDs, and who have monetised the digital musical publishing industry for not much less of that cost.

Trouble is, its primary function is to facilitate an illegal practice.

While it plays the Robin Hood of the online music scene, there's a reason why the word 'Pirate' is in its name. Pirate Bay didn't host the free files, but allowed and assisted mass access to them. In the same way you can be charged separately for the possession and supplying of drugs, the Pirate Bay verdict has shown that music giants are capable of not just successfully prosecuting the people who own illegal files, but the ones supplying them too.

Where the real issue lies, though, and why the case has been derided in many circles, is that the ruling poses an insignificant threat to the activity itself. Pirate Bay does very little more than Google, a point that is being increasingly made in the fallout, in 'making available' copyrighted material. A Google search for BitTorrents will get you the links required to start your illegal downloading career. And indeed, if Pirate Bay had 22 million users in February, surely twice that many more have now been made aware of the service. The founders of the site will be behind bars, but the website will not be shut down. Its users will not stop, and it won't prevent other services from continuing. Napster, all those years ago, was ahead of its time and suffered for its art, but set a precedent that, given the ubiquity of the internet, is simply unstoppable in this day.

The answer is great value, legitimate online services, and many new start up sites are learning quickly how to make techniques pioneered by martyrs like Napster and Pirate Bay legal. Which is why the divisive verdict has been particularly timely for Spotify.

Something akin to the Twitter of online music applications, essentially Spotify combines the access of with the recognised layout of iTunes. It's free, legal, and they're adding albums in their thousands by the day (literally: check out their blog as they continue to bolster the Spotify library). What's great is that currently, the music labels are buying into it too: Spotify obtains licences for every single minute of music they put up. Their revenue consists of advertisers, whose 45-second ads crop up once every five songs or so if you're a non-paying user, and the fees from premium users, who pay £9.99 a month to forgo the adverts. Like much of what's good about the internet at the moment, it's innovative but simple, easy and accessible. And also, possibly, revolutionary.

It allows free, constant and instant access to pretty much all the music you could want on your computer - and if you can't find something, you can be sure it won't be long in coming. The one difference is you don't have the bytes stored on your hard drive. Is that so difficult to grapple with? Real music fans will not have a problem in paying money towards owning someone else's art, be it an official download or a new CD, if owning a particular song is so much of a burning issue. And in any case, to counter the overpricing problem, artists are increasingly finding innovative ways of packaging, complementing or adding value to physical copies of music: exclusive downloads, gig tickets and competitions, t-shirts, badges, books, DVDs, teabags.

The rise of online has caused a shift in importance from ownership to access, according to one of Spotify's founders. The method of free legal access to copyrighted material and free illegal ownership of it is indistinguishable, but Spotify is the most recent winner of the battle by being the safest bridge between the gap. It is, of course, in its infancy and no doubt will face a challenge in sustaining its business model against ongoing illegal filesharing and the newly-buoyed record companies. But it is growing, and conveniently doing so at a time where embracing some sort of digital model is the only way forward, regardless of who you are or where you stand on the internet's regulatory and ownership flaws. The Pirate Bay case has served to highlight how much there is a need for the gap to be bridged further still, but, for the moment at least, those who still respect the rights of an artist to their intellectual property will be able to Spot the difference.

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