Piracy is a threat, but the Internet is the performer's best friend

BRITISH Music Rights, a campaigning organisation set up by music publishers and composers, are demanding that the Government look into the enforcement of copyright on the Internet, insisting that Britain's third largest invisible export could be badly damaged without a legal framework.

Now it has become possible to download CD-quality music from Websites, music publishers are following in the footsteps of law enforcement, print publishers, and governments in demanding regulation to mitigate their fear of losing control.

Speaking as a former internationally obscure folk singer, it's pretty galling to see a huge, galumphing industry notorious for ripping off its artists pleading that there will be no incentive to invest in new work if the Internet isn't regulated now.

EMI made pounds 307m in profits last year; compare that to the pounds 40m the industry estimates it is losing to piracy.

While it is true that the many small record labels would be far more seriously damaged if piracy runs out of control, we all know perfectly well that any money clawed back from regulating Internet downloads won't go to those small companies. It will go to the big players: them that has, gets.

The Internet does not need special regulation in order to stop piracy. It is already clearly illegal to sell bootlegged copies of copyrighted works; the precise nature of the distribution mechanism is irrelevant.

Requiring Internet service providers and telecommunications companies to act as copyright police is still more inappropriate. British Music Rights have singled out Web-based fan sites, some of which have offered unreleased concert recordings or studio out-takes.

I'm more sympathetic on this last point, since artists only have the right to control the first recording of their songs (after that, issuing a licence to another artist to cover the song is automatic), and publication on the Web might easily jeopardise that right.

But can there be any sight more graceless than last year's demands from Oasis's management that Web-site owners take down all copyrighted material (photos, videos, song clips, lyrics)? A distinction has to be made between a for-profit bootleg operation and a fan site.

Copyright law is commonly thought of as existing to give creative artists the chance to profit from their work so that they can afford to go on being creative artists. But it has a balancing purpose, too, which is to give the public fair access to that work.

The fair use doctrine, which permits things like quoting from books and articles for the purpose of review, parody, or comment, does not apply to music. The use of the tiniest prion of a tune may be subject to legal action, even though musicians throughout history traditionally quoted from each other's work much the way book authors do.

If we are going to revise the copyright laws for the digital era, I believe fair use should be applied to music - and film, TV, and video, too.

The music industry has more reason than most to be scared of the Internet. Not only does the Net offer a low-cost distribution mechanism (albeit without the luxurious cover art), but it makes it easier for independent bands to develop a following and by-pass traditional record companies entirely.

But music publishers could, if they chose, see the Internet as an opportunity to build closer relationships between bands and Britain's 6m Web users. They could learn to use the unique qualities of the Net to sell products that would have been uneconomic before, such as niche artistes, scraps of music too short for radio play but suitable for Windows start-up noises, or custom recordings of personalised lyrics.

Unfortunately, British Music Rights has done the equivalent of declaring war on the Net. Not the best marketing strategy for a new millennium, I'd have thought.