- 15 Jun 09, 12:00 GMT
For the past few weeks, the war of words between the creative industries and the internet service providers has become ever more bruising, as Lord Carter's Digital Britain report nears completion.
The music and video companies have demanded that the ISPs take strong action against illegal file-sharers, but they've responded by saying that they don't want to be internet cops, and that anyway beating piracy is a hopeless mission.
But today, there's a sudden outbreak of peace between two of the parties - Universal Music and Virgin Media. The ISP has unveiled a deal where its customers will get unlimited access to download as much music as they want from the Universal catalogue, free of copyright protection, for a monthly fee.
When I was called about this by a PR person, my first reaction was that this was interesting, but far from ground-breaking. After all, there are other "all you can eat" music subscription services.
Then I read further down the press release and found what Virgin was offering in return - action against persistent file-sharers. Here's the key paragraph:
"This will involve implementing a range of different strategies to educate file sharers about online piracy and to raise awareness of legal alternatives. They include, as a last resort for persistent offenders, a temporary suspension of internet access. No customers will be permanently disconnected and the process will not depend on network monitoring or interception of customer traffic by Virgin Media."
That sounds like the "technical measures" that the creative industries want included in the Digital Britain report, as a backup to the despatch of warning letters. But by promising "a temporary suspension of internet access" for persistent offenders, Virgin appears to have gone further than any other ISP in acceding to the demands of the music industry.
What isn't clear is just how they will identify candidates for suspension without network monitoring or interception of customer traffic. How will they know what customers are up to, or whether the files they are sharing are copyrighted, if they don't have a close look at their traffic?
These are questions that I'm about to put to the boss of Virgin Media, Neil Berkett. I'll keep you posted. But, as things stand, it does look as though someone has blinked in the war over piracy.
Update 1503: Having just met this deal's two protagonists, I think I'm a little clearer about what this is about.
Lucian Grainge, the chairman of Universal Music Group International, and Virgin Media's chief executive Neil Berkett were both keen to stress the "carrot" in the deal rather than the stick. They insisted that this kind of unlimited deal was just what customers had been demanding.
"We're giving them what they want," said Neil Berkett, "they will change their behviour."
"We've listened to consumers, we've listened to our artists, this is a real game-changer, we hope," said Lucian Grainge.
But when it came to the stick, Mr Berkett was very keen to play down the steps that would be used against file-sharers: "Yes, there are measures - no different really from what we are already doing; we're using the same technology as all ISPs."
As far as I understand, this means that it would still be Universal spotting the persistent file-sharers linked to Virgin's IP addresses. But Virgin will then get in touch with the customers, with a graduated response, which would culminate in "temporary suspension" of the user's broadband service if he or she failed to respond.
Virgin and Universal seem confident that the whole initiative will have a major effect on attitudes to illegal downloads, even suggesting that it will help achieve the government's target of cutting illegal file-sharing by 70%.
But there are a whole lot of questions still to be answered. Will other music labels come on board before the service's launch, which is due "before Christmas"? How much will the monthly subscription cost?
Will people who've grown used to "free" music from file-sharing really be happy to start paying even a modest fee? And is there a danger that some Virgin broadband customers will be so put off by the company's measures against file-sharers, however limited those might be, that they will choose to move to another ISP?
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