Friday, January 27, 2006

An Interview With A Vampire: IRMA and Pimping The System

"S'cuse me Bud, d'ya 'ave an inlay card for tha?"

Last Christmas you gave her your heart, this year she probably just settled for an IPod. Given the prevalence of white necklaces around the place, we're probably all in on the same silent conspiracy. A generation of disobedient, malfunctioning consumers – all the logic of consumerism’s gone straight out the window and we’ve settled down to plunder tunes from the net instead. The reel to reel resistance of tape copying has morphed into a whole sale ransacking of the music industry in the form of peer to peer file sharing. If the latest moves on the industry's behalf are anything to go by, its time to stick those mix tapes in the blender, microwave those CD-rs and erase those mp3s because with an unprecedented venom the industry is out to get you. Well at least that is the logic of IRMA's latest drive against Irish file sharers. We may not be too far off some geezer in a hi-vis standing on the street stopping music fans making themselves deaf with their Ipods, before asking: "s'cuse me Bud, d'ya 'ave an inlay card for tha?"

The introduction of the Copyright and Related Rights Act in 2000 put the Irish state to the forefront of legislating for copyright in the digital era, ensuring the rights holders monopoly over online distribution. The general ideological justification for all this crap rests on the premise “that unless the rights of creators and investors to a fair return are supported, the community as a whole would be impoverished by the fact that, in many cases, these works would not be created or developed.” IRMA has recently used this legislation to take litigation against over 60 "serial uploaders" this year in two separate legislative waves. IRMA's drive is primarily a scare tactic, designed to disrupt these networks by putting word out that serial up loaders are being targeted. Within peer to peer networks there is a spoken rule of "share or be banned" so if people chicken out of the game and become parasites, well, that's the mutual aid down the proverbial and the concept collapses.

The Digital Rights Ireland group raises several concerns over the manner in which IRMA carried out its litigations against music sharers, stressing possible contravention of European legislation: “firstly, there is the manner in which the individuals’ shared folders on their hard drives were entered and scanned. This was done on IRMA’s behalf by a company called MediaSentry. MediaSentry is a US based company, which does not operate within the ‘safe-harbour’ scheme for Data Protection. This means it has not agreed to handle EU citizens’ data in accordance with the European Data Protection regulations.”

All in all, the man has probably learnt something from the experiences of American copyright lobbyist Jack Valenti. Who with all the foresight of a drunk driver told a Congressional panel in 1982: "I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone." New technology has always incited fear in the entertainment industry, Disney guffawed and stalled the idea of rental tapes going as far as investigating methods to ensure they could only be used once. While back in the eighties the British Phonographic Industry cacked itself and launched the “Home Taping is Killing Music” campaign. Leaving themselves open to a ruthless and relentless campaign of satire by agit-prop heroes the Dead Kennedys, who upped their already besmirched reputation among industry circles by printing "home taping is killing big business profits. We left this side blank so you can help" on one side of the orginal In God We Trust Inc.

The industry is forcing downloaders on to legal networks like Connect Ireland, Eircom, Itunes Ireland, My Coke Music, Vitaminic Music Club Ireland, Wippit Ireland. All promoted by IRMA on its site as legal download entities, with a reservoir of tracks ranging from 250,000 to 1m. Connect requires the use of MS Explorer 5+ as did Cokes entity, Vitaminic are waiting for a new site to come online, while Wippet was undoubtedly the best deal at £50 for unlimited downloads over a year, and the heftiest choice of tracks. But face it, this twatish corporate competition is never going to be as efficient as the illegal digital underground networks like Soulseek.

Newspaper hacks trying to convey an ounce of credibility cite the stellar success of groups like the Arctic Monkies, and their relinquishing of copyright as evidence of how dynamics in the music industry have changed. Legal guru Lawerence Lessig describes how copyright is used to lock down creativity - in music this is even more obvious. The development of dance music would have been stunted if copyright was asserted, given the widespread pilfering of beats and loops as the definitive feature of the genre. Coldcut, one of Britain's definitive early dance acts had an album deleted as a result of the stringent application of copyright – so much for guaranteeing innovation. Sympathy for the industry and corporate gluttons like Metallica decreases even more when you read what the likes of Steve Albini and Courtney Love have to say about the minuscule control minor bands on mainstream labels have over their works and their resultant financial crippling.

The threat posed by peer to peer file sharing is very much rooted in the emergence of the knowledge economy, immaterial production based on the manipulation of signs and symbols rather than the manipulation of nature. The reproduction of music files is essentially a reproduction of capital, but without any economic value being derived by the copyright holder. This is the problem the music industry has, its got nowt to do with creativity, and income for bands – it’s a battle for the control of the means of musical distribution. Downloaders view themselves as engaged in an entirely different practice - continuing traditions of sharing and lending, previously associated with non-digital music formats such as vinyl, tape or CD. There have been other, more serious, contestations of copyright, the most obvious are the non-violent daily direct action against bio-piracy in India, where rural peasants reuse seeds despite Monsanto’s patent to take a ‘stolen harvest’ back out of the market and into the commons. Most people are all to familiar with the humanitarian consequences of the zealous effect of imposing patents have on the distribution of AIDs drugs. What if copyright was enforced on university photocopiers?

The music piracy debate really needs to be reframed. The success of bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and most boundary bashing musical subcultures from punk to rave show profit does not equal creativity. If we have the technology should we not remove culture from the market and allow equal access to all? After years of the industry ripping bands and fans off, screw P. Diddy and his kids desire for a gold toilet. Gangsta rapper revolutionaries the Dead Prez have it right "pimp the system" - I'm a dot.communist, and you?

What follows is an interview with Sean Murtagh, head of IRMA's anti-piracy operations (carried out on several days prior to December 12 over email ..).

Home taping never killed music, so is this fear of online piracy not similarly unjustified?

When someone copied music from an LP or analogue tape, to analogue tape, the copy and every subsequent generation of copies was inferior to the master. Ripping tracks from CDs and burning them to CDRs is, in fact, "cloning" - each copy is an exact replica of its parent. This is a much greater threat to the record industry than home-taping ever was. Bear in mind that 1 in 3 CDs worldwide is an illegally burned CDR and you will see that this is not just an industry crying wolf.

How does peer to peer music sharing differ from lending CD's or burning them for a mate? Is the worry here the sheer scale of sharing or are you trying to make a principled point on copyright here?

Making copies of copyrighted music, even for your mates, is a breach of copyright if you don't have permission to do it. What sort of friend gives you something that they have stolen? P2P sharing, when done without copyright owners permission, is copyright theft on a large-scale. IRMA's job is to tackle piracy wherever it occurs.

Should you not be placing more emphasis on the inequalities of relationship between artists and record labels rather than chasing after fans who may end up contributing directly to the artists via gig tickets or t-shirts?

IRMA cannot comment in the private contractual relationships between artist and their record companies. It is always convenient, when people want to have a go at record companies, to wheel out the argument that they are ripping off artists, but nowadays, artists are probably in a much stronger bargaining position than ever before, given that there are now other ways of getting their music to market.

Are rights of privacy being sacrificed in forcing an ISP to hand over the personal details of peer to peer file sharers?

Since when has the right to privacy been allowed to shield someone from the consequences of their illegal actions? The High Court has held that the right of a copyright owner to protect his/her creations from illegal exploitation outweighs the right to privacy of the individual committing that illegality. It should be stressed that IRMA does not simply go to ISPs and ask them to hand over the details; we ask a High Court judge to decide on the balance between the various rights involved.

Full version is availible over on Indymedia.

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I read your piece and found it pretty much one of the best I've read on this area. Do you or anyone reading your article know anyone who uses fastrack, directconnect and/or gnutella through any one of the following ISPs – Digiweb, Smart Telecom, Irish Broadband, NTL, Eircom and Imagine – and who is likely to be affected by the recent decision in the Irish courts to force the ISPs listed above to reveal the identity of those suspected of illegal music sharing.

A large number of people have been caught in what has been a six-month operation by the Irish Recorded Music Association (IRMA) – but 23 are facing prosecution. One of them had 37,500 songs on his PC.

If you can help, it would be much appreciated. If you do know someone, could you forward them my email address? Thanks in advance for your help.

This information is for an Irish newspaper and an article due to be published this Sunday.

Please email me at:
Hi Neil, I'm sorry I can't say I've heard of any one I know getting stung unfortunately. Thanks for the comment.
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