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 112.

    @109: Bach only just scraped a living, and that was as a church organist, not a composer. Mozart died in abject poverty. The answer to your question is, composers did NOT make a living on the whole, and those that did had rich benefactors (Tchaikovsky for instance). I don't see why people feel it is their right to have music for free, committing musicians to poverty. Develop a sense of morality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    I'm sick of hearing how we owe small (low quality?) artists a living. If they love the music then just get on with it.

    The pirates are now regulating an industry that for years was completely unregulated.

    Do you think that we would have itunes if it wasn't for piracy, and if we did do you think the albums would be a cheap as they are?

    £15 for an album...please

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    I think that when an idea has attained a certain threshold of popularity, it is time for authority to admit defeat and work in another direction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    What actually needs to happen is for the music industry to realise they are flogging a dead horse and change their business model.

    What did artist's and musicians do to make a living before the advent of recordable media, was the world void of anyone able to create music before c1850. Of course not, they simply performed, and people paid to see them. This arrangement works for me,shall we try it?

  • Comment number 108.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    I love hearing about how much money the evil pirates are making. Let me ask you this, if the pirates can make so much money from supplying near zero cost stuff, why can't the industry just nick their business plan? Too proud to sell an album for a quid? Too stubborn to take the ad revenue? But carry on, by all means I'm sure you'll change the mind of the entire population of Asia any day now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.


    Piracy involves storming a boat or ship and often encompasses much suffering, rape, murder, maiming and other very bad things.
    Copyright violations were and should have remained civil matters but the record companies bought enough legislators to criminalise them.
    It is at worst minor theft : NOT PIRACY.
    @33 Doc, et alii, : Thank you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105. of course.
    Sorry, folks.

    "Other search engines are available" Try typing "search engine" into any of the ones I have mentioned.

    And : @20. Musric: (and others) :
    The recording companies arduously *AVOID* supporting small (= unprofitable) artists. They prefer "big name" (= profitable) clients.
    They always have.
    Obviously. That is how they get to be big enough to buy judges.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    No, I don't pirate anything..but... I haven't bought music for *ages* due to a dislike of paying for very rich lawyers, overpaid corporate executives and bought judges, courts, legislators, entire legislatures and MPs. If the record industry *was* fighting for the "poor starving artists" I would heavily support them.
    Making teenagers into criminals to pay lawyers is itself criminal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    I doubt Mr. Cellan-Jones has noticed, and, as he iss the BBC's "technology correspondant" it is highly unlikely anyone else at the BBC knows but there *ARE* other search engines out there:

    and of course to mention only a few.

    Google banning a link does *NOT* make it cease to exist.

    Just being helpful...

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    The BPI has been running round for years looking for someone to blame other than themselves. The sooner they accept the inevitable and start to work with technology and innovation instead of against it, the better for everyone involved.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    @92 DJSupertel

    That's it in a nutshell. A law is only as good as the support it receives from the public.

    @83 John Flahive

    I've been trying to read that report for some time, but IE states that it is trying to do something unusual and terminates the programme.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Google says it already removes two million links a month on requests , and it can't mess with its search algorithm

    If it does mess with its results, Google is toast

    Disappearing tycoon Souter blames Google

    The net is almost a perfect information environment and once any organisation loses credibility this is almost impossible to retrieve

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    Why is it that whenever the BPI talk about piracy they always mention Adele. Do they not realise that if it wasn't for Google and YouTube ( part of Google) this so called artist would still be an unknown. Yes, put Adele/Mp3 into Google and it will show websites containing her songs, now try "cars/stealing" or "how to kill someone" and suddenly they are responsible for most murders and car thefts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    The real theft taking place is the theft by the music industry of works from the public domain. They do this by lobbying/bribing governments to keep extending copyright terms. It is abhorrent that so much of popular culture is privately owned.

    The length of copyright should be massively reduced. Fifteen/twenty years seems reasonable. The copyright extremists have had their way for far too long.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    I've seen automated filtering and censoring of content in various places such as schools and businesses and it always results in some legitimate content being blocked. If Google went more down this route all that would happen is we'd be talking about the guy whose legitimate business failed because Google de-listed him - it should not fall to Google to police the internet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Surely Google doesn't make money from piracy - their income is ad based, and the paid for ads when you search are unlikely to be from pirates, as they aren't making enough money per click to compete with real retailers. Google lists pirate sites because that is what most people want to find, even if they can get Google to change, it will just mean searchers will move on, so this is no solution.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    I really think that the consumers, the fans, should be on the moral high ground here! Not Google! And especially not BPI! Until the fans get everything they want (music, movies), in any format they want, for any device they want and without DRM, there will always be piracy. Because at the moment, the pirates are offering exactly that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    let's face it, there's a lot of garbage music out there that people are willing to spend a few minutes downloading, but if they had to pay for it, they wouldn't. if artists want to sell more music and pocket the cash, they need to get out there and perform it. If people don't show up to their gigs, they should probably find another line of work or start selling a line of perfume a'la Jlo

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    I'm a musician and I give my music and videos away for free. Answer me this: Do you pay the plumber a fee every time you flush the toilet, or just the once when he first installed it? If artists want to get paid they need to sell tickets and perform live. Not record a tune once and sit back reaping in licensing fees for the next 80 years.


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