Mark's Musings

A miscellany of thoughts and opinions from an unimportant small town politician and bit-part web developer

Turning the tide against bad arguments

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I have to admit that I don’t usually read the business section of the newspaper. But I just happened to glance through it in today’s Times, and my eye was caught by a headline “Britain must turn tide against piracy”. Its location in the business (or, to be more precise, money) section suggested that it was referring to copyright infringement rather than violent assault and murder on the high seas, so I stopped to read the article. My hunch was proved right, as the author, David Wighton, was commenting on the Abu Dhabi media summit (whatever that is).

Unfortunately, The Times doesn’t want people like me who see an interesting article in the printed copy being able to link to the online version, so you’ll have to either take my word for it that I’m reporting it accurately or buy a copy yourselves. But there are a couple of things in the article which deserve comment.

For a start, Wighton leads off with the usual emotive language when he says that

…the industry still sees vast amounts of its sales stolen through piracy…

which, of course, is the kind of metaphor (I’m assuming he’s intelligent enough to know that it is a metaphor, and that no actual theft or piracy is actually taking place) that has been rebutted often enough that I really don’t think it’s worth my while doing again here. But the bulk of the article is taken up with a complaint that the British government is being excessively influenced by the likes of BT, Talk Talk, the Liberal Democrats and Google when it comes to dealing with copyright infringement. Regarding Google, Wighton says

In a Q&A session in Abu Dhabi, Nikesh Arora, Google’s chief business officer, was asked why when you sarch for a band 17 out of the top 20 results are usually illegal download sites. It was one of the few questions that he failed to answer.

Now, I wasn’t there, and I have no idea why Arora didn’t answer the question. It’s quite possible, for that matter, that he did answer it but that the answer simply wasn’t the one his audience wanted to hear. But it’s also possible that he didn’t answer it because it’s an unanswerable question as the premise itself is wrong. I did a little research, picking some bands and artists at random and checking the Google results, and in none of them did I find anything like 17 illegal download sites in the first 20 results. So that you can replicate my research, these are the search terms I used:

(I should point out that this doesn’t necessarily reflect my listening choices, it’s simply based on a few names which are unambiguous enough to not get false positives for things which are nothing to do with the artist in question)

OK, so that’s just seven bands, but I’m pretty sure that if illegal download sites were that prevalent I’d have hit some of them by now. But, in reality, they were conspicuous by their absence. Maybe Nikesh Arora didn’t answer the question simply because he was amazed that anyone would be stupid enough to ask it.

Let’s offer a little charity here, though, and assume that, just as we’re assuming that David Wighton understands that “stolen” and “piracy” are just metaphors, the questioner was innocently mistaking something else for illegal download sites. Maybe he just meant any unofficial site, for example. Why does Google return so many sites for bands and artists ones that are not those run by the media companies? That’s not an entirely stupid question (it is pretty stupid if you stop to think about it, but it’s not in the crazier-than-a-bucket-of-frogs stupid category of the one quoted by Wighton), so let’s answer it.

The first answer, of course (and the one that does make it bit of a dumb question) is that most bands only have one official website, but Google returns all possible results for a query and therefore the majority of them will always be unofficial sites. Maybe the music industry (or the sector of it represented by the question) thinks that Google shouldn’t even do that; that the only sites you should be able to find via a search engine are the ones that they sanction. If so, though, we’re back into bucket of frogs territory again – such a belief betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Internet itself. So let’s be even more charitable, and assume that the question was really about why unofficial sites are so popular. Now, that really isn’t a stupid question, and it really does deserve an answer.

It’s worth noting here that the official site usually is the top result from Google. But it isn’t always (and often isn’t) the most popular, according to third party stats such as those provided by Alexa. It’s worth asking why this is the case.

The main reason why unofficial sites get more visitors, it seems to me, is that many record companies still don’t “get” the web. They see it as a means to broadcast to, rather than engage with, their audience. So when their audience wants to actually participate in the discussion, they have to go elsewhere. Some of the most popular websites on the net are forums devoted to bands. It’s no coincidence, too, that splash screens and Flash-heavy (or even all-Flash) websites, those relics of Web 0.1 and design fashions of the last century, are alive and well in official band websites. There are examples in my list, above. And it doesn’t take Hercule Poirot to suspect that unofficial sites are more likely to contain links to sources of illegal downloads. So maybe that is the real substance of the complaint: That unofficial sites are too popular, and they link to things that the record companies don’t want linked to.

The remedy to that is both really simple and really difficult. It’s really simple because all it takes is a change in concept: make official band sites a place where the band can interact with their audience (and properly interact, too, not just have a PR-managed questions page where band members say what clothes they like wearing or how much they enjoyed the last video shoot) rather than treating them as an online advert. And it’s really difficult because that doesn’t just require a change in the way websites are managed but also a change in the underlying ethos of the music industry – it requires them to stop seeing music fans as dumb consumers and start treating them as people. But it’s the record companies’ failure to do that in the first place which has contributed to the growth in illegal downloads. The music industry’s business model is dying; complaining about websites offering unauthorised downloads is a little bit like arguing over the arrangement of deckchairs on the Titanic.

Incidentally, there’s a really delicious typo in the article. Referring to the Digital Economy Act and its provisions for “web blocking”, Whighton writes:

BT and Talk Talk object to the Act’s provision that would force them to block websites that facilitate illegal downloading. They see it is an expensive responsibility for a problem which is nothing to do with them

I’m pretty sure that what Whighton meant to write (or what he did write, but the copytaker misread) ┬áis that BT and Talk Talk “see it as an expensive responsibility”, rather than “see it is”. That is, he’s intending to report their opinion without agreeing with it. But I think that nearly everyone who actually understands the issues here would say that the published version, ironically, gets it right – it is an expensive responsibility that isn’t the ISPs’ problem. It would be rather amusing if this typo were later to be quoted as representing David Wighton’s opinion in debates elsewhere.