The news that the Government is considering various measures against file-sharers, including cutting off their Internet connections is more amusing than worrying, from where I'm sitting. After receiving David Geffen's hospitality, of course Mandy's got to make harrumphing 'something must be done' noises. Is it even remotely enforceable, though? Save for a few well-publicised legal actions brought by the RIAA in 2002 or thereabouts, the threatened wave of mass prosecutions has failed to materialise. A few people have received legal letters from computer game developers demanding compensation for alleged file-sharing naughtiness, but all can quite reasonably claim that it must have been someone leeching off their unsecured wireless broadband and tell the beaks to piss off. The Pirate Bay verdict has not resulted in the site's closure, and those responsible for running the site remain free men, despite ludicrous sentences being handed down. Even if it were possible to monitor every last bit of data sent or received, it would, effectively, criminalise the vast majority of computer users. If you've looked at even a single clip on YouTube, you've almost certainly been a party to 'copyright theft'. Most of those computer users will also be voters.
I share files. I've put things on YouTube to illustrate points I want to make here, I use Bit Torrent, and I download music and video from blogs and other sites. However, none of the stuff that I send or receive is available commercially. I encode and share records and archive TV programmes that haven't a cat in hell's chance of a DVD or CD release, but which a small number of people still want to see/hear. Some of the things I've hoovered off the Web have been vital for my researches into light entertainment. If I want something, and it's available to buy, I buy it. Legally, there's no distinction between sharing the contents of a commercial DVD and a forgotten comedy show retrieved from a Betamax tape, but, morally and ethically, I think there's a considerable gulf between the two acts. Just recently, I saw a newly-released DVD of a 1970s TV series turning up on Bit Torrent sites on the day of its official release. I'm afraid that's not cricket, chaps.
Maybe I'm just post-rationalising my own transgressions, but I can't see a problem with sharing commercially-unavailable material. For one thing, doing so drives a coach and horses through the distasteful practice of bootlegging for profit. For another, sharing an obscurity can help create awareness and interest for an eventual commercial release. The DVD of the Armando Iannucci Shows, an excellent series overlooked at the time of transmission in autumn 2001 because of various world events, came about largely because comedy fans had been sharing the shows online in the years since, bringing them to a new audience who'd missed them when they went out. The fans then began lobbying for a proper release. Hell, I've even seen things that I've encoded turning up as the source of clips in TV programmes - in which case, the broadcasters are the ones doing the illegal downloading. How do you like them apples?
If Geffen gets his way, will I be left without an Internet connection? Believe when see. In the meantime, the 'creative industries' should stop insulting their customers and potential customers, cease bellyaching about file-sharing and simply try to work out ways of making it generate revenue for them. Home taping didn't kill music.