As the Digital Economy Bill ploughs through Parliament, its most eye-catching proposal – to disconnect illegal file-sharers from the internet – seems highly unpopular elsewhere. Almost 32,000 people have now petitioned the No 10 website urging abolition of this proposal. Perhaps in a similar spirit, a Teesside jury last week acquitted a man who ran a very lucrative website facilitating illegal file-sharing.
Introducing the Bill, Lord Mandelson targeted a 70 per cent reduction, by April 2011, in illicit file-sharing – the downloading or transfer of music and audiovisual content without paying the copyright holder. If this target is missed, it will quickly become possible to suspend the broadband connections of illicit downloaders. Mandelson's words reminded me of Muriel's Wedding. In the delightful Aussie movie the heroine's dad is a politician who campaigns on the slogan "You can't stop progress". Yet that's precisely what Mandelson is trying to do with this Bill. Maybe he missed the film.
The Bill is designed to protect people like me – but I fail to see how it will do so. As a television producer I have long been fascinated by the internet and so I set up Quantafilms.com, one of Britain's first websites to sell downloads of TV documentaries. We've begun modestly, offering films we made on subjects ranging from Sir Frank Whittle to It Girls. We also provided them on DVD to see if viewers prefer physical or virtual copies. Naturally we worried that people might illicitly swap downloads of these titles. Yet recent experience of selling them has taught me not to worry.
I'm clearly out of step with my industry. A body called The Creative Coalition Campaign has successfully lobbied the Government to crack down on illegal file sharing. It includes record labels, cinemas, DVD distributors, film and TV producers and unions. It's unprecedented for them all to come together like this, and a sign of how alarmed they are by "online piracy", the emotive term someone coined along the way. The statistics suggests they have a point.
In Britain one in eight, or one in ten – take your pick – illegally file-share. That could be six million people. They cost the industry billions in revenue and destroy thousands of jobs, we're told. Ministers have clearly bought this argument, but these figures are pure conjecture. They must know that both music and film industries often tried to stop progress – and just looked stupid. The record labels and film studios respectively claimed the audio cassette and then the VHS would destroy their industries. Well, they're still here.
Working in science programmes, it's often struck me how few creatives in music and film follow the technology driving their business. Hence the music industry failed to see that their world would be turned upside down by the switch from physical, analogue goods (whose supply could be controlled) to digital files which could be reproduced endlessly by anyone. The audiovisual industry has been less badly hit, because its products have huge file sizes that still take longer to download. Yet the industry fears a huge problem once that changes.
Mandelson's approach to such difficulties seems contradictory. Despite the goal of a 70 per cent reduction in illicit file-sharing, he has "no expectations of mass suspensions" of internet customers. Most of the alleged six million file-sharers need not fear enforcement. And I wonder who the industry's target really is.
The first is apparently those websites that sell on other people's intellectual property. But ask people who swap free music and you find they are more likely to get it from friends than from sites of dubious legality. We don't even know if most files are shared via traceable computers.
Today, pay-as-you-go mobile phones can be MP3 players between which you can share albums using their Bluetooth technology. A second, softer target is teenagers. It's assumed they don't know about copyright and therefore need a little education. Alas, I find very educated thirtysomethings swapping music and films among their colleagues.
Friends of the Digital Economy Bill might reasonably ask how a critic like me would solve the problems it addresses. All I can say is: trust people – and don't call them criminals. My experience selling downloads and DVDs suggests that if people are happy with the price of a film they like, they will buy it. The digital revolution is destroying value and our creative industries will just have to lower their product prices if they are to sell in download form. Consequently it means making films and music for less. It can be done.
The writer is the producer of 'Whittle – The Jet Pioneer'Reuse content