Rhodri Marsden: Cyberman

It's free to share music, but it could cost you in the long run

Last week saw the first two defeats in a British court for those wanting to share copyrighted music over the internet. One defendant, from King's Lynn, claimed there was insufficient evidence against him, while a postman from Brighton relied on the flimsy defence that he didn't know he was doing anything wrong. The judge, unimpressed with their arguments, slapped hefty fines on them both. A triumphant spokesperson from the British Phonographic Industry - which brought the case - said: "These rulings are a massive step forward in the music industry's bid to fight illegal file-sharing."

It's an optimistic statement. The BPI itself admitted last year that the problem wasn't going to disappear simply by winning a couple of court cases. Whether record companies like it or not, our concept of the value of an album has been slashed by the ease and simplicity of file-sharing. This is no underground, password-protected movement; websites with a corporate sheen display glowing faux-testimonials from middle-class couples such as "Jerry and Laura", pictured not languishing in a police cell. "As soon as we signed up," they say, "we downloaded all our favourite songs and movies!" It's surely common sense that downloading and then offering thousands of songs and films to the world for free is illegal, but doing so has never been so popular. The three main file-sharing networks - eDonkey, FastTrack and Gnutella - each have between 2 million and 3.5 million users each month. You would forgive those people for thinking that their activities would go unnoticed, and that they were unlikely to be caught. Are any now going to suddenly take the moral high ground?

The companies who make the programs that allow us to access the networks are quick to absolve themselves of responsibility. Admittedly, some have gone legit (Napster) or have ceased their activities (Grokster), but others keep ahead of the law via a web of offshore companies. The "help" sections of their websites feature such useful advice as, "sharing is not illegal as long as you obey the relevant copyright laws" and "we are not responsible for anything".

But file-sharing networks are so swamped with copyrighted material that these warnings barely serve any legal function - and those who claim that there's a world of wonderful copyright-free music out there are wrong. Much of it is made by blokes on detuned guitars after too many beers on a Friday night. After scouring the Gnutella network for any files that I could be absolutely certain wouldn't get me into any trouble, I finally found and downloaded the CV of a girl called Izmir from Mexico, who studied English at college, and is, apparently, skilled at using both Word and Excel. I'm currently sharing her CV for the world to access from my computer, but prospective employers have, unsurprisingly, failed to download it even once.


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