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Virgin Media and the BPI

August 2008

If you have younger relatives who use their laptops on your internet connection, read on.

Two internet related issues have recently had teams of lawyers hard at work invoicing their clients; both skirmishes obey that key legal principle of going for the deepest pocket first, however innocent they might at first seem. In one instance, that’s you and me.

In June, the overpriced handbag firm Hermes successfully persuaded a French judge to fine eBay for allowing someone to sell the counterfeit handbags on their site, rather than going for the counterfeiter herself.

Then there’s the BPI, which represents the UK recorded music business and has been whining for ages that their big selling artists are not making quite such grotesque amounts of money as they used to. They blame it on people using the internet to download copies of music from each other. It’s called “peer to peer file sharing” and they say it breaches copyright rules.

But they have a problem; they don’t actually know who is doing the copyright infringing, they just know it’s happening. What’s more, most internet service providers (ISPs) won’t hand over details of the possible infringers to the BPI without a Court Order – something that the BPI can’t get without the details. Touché.

This is where Oldies become involved. The BPI is certain that most of the people they are after are young, and don’t have their own internet accounts, so it has decided to aim at the deeper pocket: the owner of the internet connection (that’s you and me). They have managed to persuade Virgin Media, one of the bigger ISPs, to launch what they call, rather sinisterly in my view, “an education campaign”.

What this means is that Virgin are acting as the BPI’s enforcers, and sending letters to any of their customers that they suspect of allowing their internet connection to be used for such purposes (knowingly or otherwise) and “educating” them about how this might be illegal. You can see copies of the Virgin letter by clicking here and the BPI letter by clicking here.  You can read their joint press release by clicking here.

By the way, if it surprises you that they are able to work out which of us might be candidates to receive these letters, don’t be; as I keep on saying, using the internet is essentially a public activity. Your ISP can see everything you do.

The BPI have long been nagging ISPs like Virgin, insisting that they “take action” or face the consequences. Some (especially Carphone Warehouse) have told the BPI to boil their heads, saying that their demands are unworkable.

Virgin seems to have negotiated this holding situation, which will at least keep the BPI off their backs for a bit, but not for very long. The letters will be sent out for a couple of months, after which their effect will be assessed. My guess is that their effect will be two thirds of next to nothing.

This kind of effort has failed in the past. Last year Tiscali promised the BPI that they would disconnect persistent downloaders, and four people were duly cut off. Then the arrangement collapsed because neither side would pay for it.

I wonder if the BPI really has the nerve to take on one of the big ISPs in court. Even if they do, there is no certainty they would win. After all nobody considers suing BT if someone commits a crime over the telephone.

No, it’s about time the BPI admitted that the recorded music gravy train has hit the buffers. It’s just what happened to sheet music sales when records were invented, so they should be used to it.