Music piracy - who’s on the moral high ground?


Google says it already removes two million links a month on requests from rights holders.

It's a battle between one of the world's most powerful companies, Google, and the trade body representing British music labels, the BPI. The increasingly bitter confrontation over what responsibility the search firm has to help in the battle against web piracy is the subject of my film for Newsnight on Wednesday evening.

The BPI says Google has become a directory for piracy - put Adele or any artist plus MP3 into the search box, and you'll find page after page of unauthorised sites before you come to anything legitimate. The trade body wants the pirate sites pushed down the search rankings - Google says it already removes two million links a month on requests from rights holders, and it can't mess with its search algorithm.

I suspect that many of you reading this will come down on Google's side. After all the music industry is hugely powerful, and has been ripping off consumers for years, right? Who are they to take the moral high ground?

But don't forget that Google now earns about three times as much in the UK as the entire music industry. And if you think the call for action against the firm comes exclusively from bloated record industry executives who deserve no sympathy, listen to Alastair Nicholson.

He has been running the UK hip-hop label Son Records for more than a decade, battling to keep afloat. Visit his office, and you'll find no flunkies delivering flowers or a boardroom decorated with rock memorabilia - just one man in an attic flat.

Son Records has been a labour of love for Alastair, who believed UK hip-hop artists were more political and less crassly commercial than their American equivalents - and wanted to get them a wider hearing. He had modest success at first, but gradually found that sales were falling away. "When I looked online I'd just find a lot of my stuff myself lying around for free and it seemed to me to be getting a worse and worse problem."

So with one album, Genghis by Cappo and Stylee C, he tried a new approach to try to beat the pirates. First, he released a special edition of the album on vinyl, without handing out any digital copies to reviewers. They complained, but the vinyl version sold well - and when Nicholson searched the web he found no trace of any unauthorised copies.

Copying files

The vinyl edition covered some of the costs, but the album was never going to be profitable without a full release. Alastair prepared to release Genghis on a wide range of formats - CD, digital download, even a special edition USB stick. The day after the release he went to his computer:

"Every day up to the release it had been clean - links to our websites, reviews, and so on. The day after the release when it had become simultaneously available on all the download sites I was just horrified. I did a search for the artist name and the album titles and it was just page after page of file shares and free downloads and I didn't get to anything legitimate until the bottom of the fifth or sixth page."

He spent the next 10 days trying to hunt down every pirated link, contacting Google and issuing takedown notices. Eventually the search results began to look better, but the damage had been done. "In my opinion it pretty much killed it," he says. "Having had this month long period when I was selling a lot of copies of records - the limited edition - well to call it a trickle is to be quite generous. It slowed down to almost nothing."

Alastair says his kind of album has a short window to make an impact - and if in that time it is available free online then there is little prospect of any substantial sales. A couple of years on, and the prospects for Son Records do not look any brighter. In fact, the business has effectively shut down, and its owner puts much of the blame at Google's door as an enabler of piracy.

Downloading sign

I put it to him that it wasn't Google's fault if the web was awash with free music and that was what people were searching out.

"You're right," he said. "There's any number of people distributing music for free, I'm not trying to lay that at Google's door." So how would he describe Google's stance, I asked. He thought for a bit, and then said: "There's a lack of a moral viewpoint."

Google's Theo Bertram strongly disputes that: "I'm happy to say Google doesn't support piracy and does support freedom of expression," he told me. "Those are not in conflict."

But Alastair Nicholson also points to an irony in the way music fans behave. He thinks the people who like his kind of music and would get it for free online would see themselves as anti-establishment, "sticking it to The Man," as the saying goes. But the result of their actions is that the only future for a small music label is to cosy up to a corporate giant: "Unless you're going to become the corporate mascot for Barclaycard, Weetabix, whatever, I don't see there's that many ways to make a business selling music."

Whatever anti-piracy measures are tried - from blocking the Pirate Bay to changing Google's search rankings - seem unlikely to make much of a difference unless music fans become convinced that there is something not quite right about taking illegal downloads.

The big labels represented by the BPI will no doubt find a way to survive but music fans may find that an industry where Son Records can't make a living is not quite what they wanted.

UPDATE 10: 43 BST, 19 July 2012

Someone who knows music industry finances like the back of his hand has been in touch to point out that my line about Google earning three times as much as the entire industry does not tell the whole story. True, retail sales for music in the UK amounted to just under £800m, which compares to Google's UK revenues of around £2.4bn. But add in licensing income, and the growing receipts from live music - and you get nearer to £4bn for the entire UK industry. Now, if you wanted to have a punt on what would be worth more in the coming years - Google's advertising business or the music industry - I know which way I'd bet. But for now, there are still ways to make money from music.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    @24 Lester Barnes

    I take you have evidence that Google receive money from torrent sites to list their content. Because that would be so obviously illegal that you'd have to ask why we don't see any court cases. In addition, I did a quick Google search on your name and strangely enough there is a Lester Barnes music producer that is top of the list. Same person? Did he pay to be top?

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    The BPI are trying enforce a monopoly that is no longer tenable.

    If artists are struggling but create stuff worth paying for then they should bypass the BPI and record labels and use the internet to their advantage.

    If they don't, I have no sympathy for them. Some of us don't have the luxury of doing a few months work and then sitting back while the money rolls in year after year after year...

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    @Birchy. Censorship has absolutely nothing to do with it. The works that are being pirated are readily available through legal sites - 100% uncensored, in the original form in which they were created by the artist. It's a totally false argument perpetuated by pirate sites to frustrate attempts to shut them down. The "internet freedom" they demand is the freedom to continue their criminality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I wouldn't download Hip Hop legally or otherwise .

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I suppose the BPI have an equally uncultured response as to why it doesn't just pay for its preferred distributors to appear at the top of the Google listing in much the same way as many, many other businesses do?

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    @John Flahive your analogy is right. We shouldn't be ripping off artists and should be going after the perpetrators. But that isn't Google, the same way it isn't Tesco. Go after the shoplifter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    This subject rears it head almost every week and as usual the record industry seek to blame someone else. I feel sorry for Alistair but the fact is the fans of the music he trying promote would rather not pay for it. This is more about demographics than anything else. The record industry needs to unify and work with the net industry, not against them that and release music that people want to buy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Piracy is bad, internet censorship is 100x worse.
    People are messing with things they don't understand.
    Be very careful which side you support, you won't realise what you had until it's gone and when it's gone its too late to get it back.
    We owe it to our future generations to FIGHT for a free internet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    @Ben E - The point here is that the "Drug Dealer" is paying the "Park Owner" to be able to deal drugs in the park and the "park owner" owner also gets the drug dealer to advertise his parks........

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    first of all, piracy is wrong no matter how you look at it but this Google controversy is just plain stupid. Google's job is to provide a service which allows people to search for pages on the internet. The fact that people are criticizing Google because illicit sites can be found is missing the point. what next? "Drug deals are happening in parks! lets ban parks! and the routes to the parks!"

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    I use sites like spotify (the free version) or WE7 on my phone to listen to msuic I think I might like (or in the case of WE7 music similar to music I like) and if it's what I want then I will search to find the best deal and BUY it. Sometimes a CD is better value, sometimes download but I won't even bother looking at sites with illegal pirated versions.
    You are paying someone for their work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Copyright infringment is illegal. Providing class-A drugs is illegal. Why does Google provide links to one and not the other? Is it just a mater of degree and if so who at Google decides the difference between a scamp and a gangster?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I do not understand how people continue to justify illegal and morally corrupt practices by blaming the fact a group of companies overcharge them. If you think the product is not worth it, then don't acquire it, but don't steal it. Forget the recording industry: think of the composers and performers who are unable to earn a living. The multimillionaires were always a minority - now even more so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Since the tired argument has been brought up again, Copyright infringement is nowhere near as serious crime as as shop lifting as the merchant never loses their copy of the item they are trying to sell.

    However, through backroom deals, the media companies are trying to force on us the kind of internet monitoring that would be the equivalent of a shop strip searching EVERY customer as they leave.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    @John F - so which Label PR company do you also work for?
    Musicians have always struggled to make a living in same way as the rest of us do in the thousands of years before the ability to sell recorded copies of their work allowed a select few to become multimillionaires.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    @Lester - so which Label PR company do you work for?
    As a Software Developer, Google are responsible for the providing the only smartphone development platform with a negligible cost of entry for me to earn some extra beer money from.
    Also you want to ban Googles Ad services which allow many small sites to turn a modest profit simply because a few sites decide to host unauthorised content?

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    OMG! Alastair Nicholson already knows how to compete, he mentions it, sell something that they cannot get elsewhere, whether it be a one off special piece of vinyl or as others have and produce a special collectors edition with artwork etc that cannot be gotten elsewhere. The days of artists making tens of millions are gone, embrace the tech and sell finite things, not infinite computer files.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Google already filters out pirate sites in France, but won't lift a finger to help British businesses.

    We need to support small labels, publishers and games companies here and make giant corporations, who don't pay tax in the UK, like Google, socially responsible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    It's depressing that instead of demanding action against the perpetrators of crime, that so many commentators make out that its the victim's fault. By victims I mean the thousands of people who depend on music for a living. Would people attempt to justify shoplifting from Tescos in this way, that would jeapordise the jobs of thousands of its workers and those of its suppliers?

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    It drives me nuts hearing people talk about the 'Big Record Companies' Google is SO much bigger and feeding like a leech off of the work of musicians, film makers and software developers. They make money from the fees of torrent sites, they advertise on these same illegals sites yet they try assume that the content that generates this interest and money is worthless ? Google are the crooks


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