The age of illegal music downloads could soon be over. The UK's largest provider of home broadband is to warn internet users building up vast libraries of music that they could be prosecuted.
From next week, Virgin Media will send letters to thousands of households where music is either being downloaded or illegally shared. Many of the recipients are likely to be the unsuspecting parents of teenagers who hoard free downloads offered by file-sharing services. Research shows the majority of them are unaware their children are breaking the law.
The campaign is a joint venture between Virgin Media and the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), which represents the major record labels. The BPI ultimately wants internet companies to implement a "three strikes and out" rule to warn and ultimately disconnect the estimated 6.5 million customers whose accounts are used for regular criminal activity.
Geoff Taylor, the chief executive of BPI, said the partnership between ISPs and his industry needed to flower, adding that the deal with Virgin was a "significant first illustration of this".
"Virgin Media is the first ISP to publicly address the problem. It is a socially responsible ISP and I think other ISPs will look at this and see progress. I am very encouraged they have engaged with us. They understand the rights of musicians," he said.
"Education is the absolute key to reducing the amount of illegal downloading ... new partnerships with ISPs can help build an internet in which music is properly valued."
Virgin has stopped short of threatening any of its 3.5 million subscribers with disconnection, saying it first wants to "educate" customers during a 10-week trial campaign. Their letters will, however, be accompanied by a stern written warning from the BPI, which will threaten both disconnection and a court appearance for those who continue to download illegally.
Campaigns in the US and France have increased the pressure on the Government to act. The Business minister, Shriti Vadera, said: "This is a very welcome first step ... to educate consumers about unlawful file sharing, which damages our vibrant economy."
There remain major sticking points on the implementation of the law, however. These include uncertainty over precisely who will arbitrate disputes – for example when customers claim to have been victims of "wi-fi piggybacking" in which users link up to a paid-for wireless network that is not their own.
File-sharing and the law
*If you use peer-to-peer applications to copy or distribute copyrighted material such as music, films and software, and do so without paying royalties, you are almost certainly infringing the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. Internet service providers bear no liability for illegal file sharing because the content is not hosted on their servers. Although such files may be transmitted across an ISP network, ISPs are "mere conduits" of information, as per the E-Commerce Regulations 2002.