Grant Shapps, (snake) oiling the wheels of IP reform

I blogged a couple of days ago about the fact that Grant Shapps, the new Conservative party chairman, turns out to have founded a company dedicated to selling SEO snake oil. The point of that article wasn’t particularly to criticise him, it was more to do with the fact that one of his company’s websites had inadvertently revealed just how useless the kind of stuff it sells is.

I commented at the time that “it’s probably rather embarrassing for Mr Shapps to be linked with this kind of stuff”, but, in retrospect, I doubt he’s embarrassed at all. You have to have a pretty thick skin to deal in black hat SEO techniques, and an equally thick skin to be successful in politics, so it’s more likely to be just water off a duck’s back. And, although I don’t use the kind of techniques he sells, I don’t think there’s anything which is particularly morally wrong with making money out of them. If someone is determined to use black hat SEO, then why not sell them the tools?

What’s more interesting, though, is the nature of the tools that HowToCorp (the company founded by Mr Shapps) sells. One, in particular (and the one that I blogged about the other day), is what’s called a “content spinner”. In the parlance of the black hat wearing SEO consultant, that means a program which takes content, such as an online article, and then “spins” it in order to produce another article which can then be indexed by Google as if it were original. For example, look at this page, and then this one – the second is the same article rewritten by machine (on new technology).

Obviously, to do that you have to have content to begin with, and there are two main sources. Firstly, you can write it yourself. Or (and far more commonly) you can simply copy it from somewhere else. In the example above, the original comes from one of many “free ezine articles” websites that are themselves a common SEO tool – people write articles, then submit them for syndication in the hope that each publication will generate backlinks to their own website.

If the second website I linked to there was simply republishing the article as written, then it would be entirely legitimate – the articles are originally published with republication in mind, and that’s allowed – and even encouraged – by the terms and conditions of their source. But “spinning” them isn’t permitted. In fact, it’s explicitly prohibited.

What that means is that the second site I linked to is infringing copyright in the original article. And the second site is one of HowToCorp’s own network of spun content websites.

Plenty of people are up in arms about that. I’m not one of them. I don’t like the plagiarism inherent in using spun third party content, and if pressed I’d probably call it morally wrong. But I’m a lot more relaxed about the copyright infringement aspect.

The thing which alerted me to this story was, as it happens, a tweet from Loz Kaye, the leader of the Pirate Party UK:

@grantshapps in IP infringement row: http://bit.ly/OIGpwk Can’t promise campaign to save minister or his wife.

Now, I’m no copyright abolitionist, but I think that Mr Kaye was possibly missing a trick here. Content spinning may be the sordid underbelly of copyright challenge, but a challenge it nonetheless is. It’s impossible, morally or rationally, to defend content spinning without also defending other forms of challenge to existing copyright laws such as filesharing. If Mr Shapps is being anything like consistent, then he has to be as much in favour of the latter as he is of his own actions.

Obviously, moral consistency is by no means guaranteed in politicians. But there’s another intriguing link here. Grant Shapps happens to be the cousin of former Clash vocalist and guitarist Mick Jones. And Jones is currently a member of Carbon/Silicon, a band of which Wikipedia has this to say:

The formation of the band was catalyzed by the internet and file sharing. The first song written by Jones and James was entitled “MPFree,” in which they expressed their willingness to embrace the technology of the internet and file sharing, in the interest of spreading music, rather than profit.

I have no idea how close Jones and Shapps are. Maybe they go out every week for a beer, maybe they only see each other at family occasions, or maybe they never speak. And it could easily be just a coincidence that one cousin believes in freedom to share music, while the other only believes in his own freedom to share text. But maybe, just maybe, Grant Shapps really does come from a position of genuinely wanting to see reform of the UK’s onerous and anti-innovation intellectual property laws. If so, then his reputation as one of the Conservative Party’s rising stars could be even more significant.

So what are the thoughts of Mr Shapps when it comes to the likes of the Pirate Bay, I wonder? Anyway, here’s Carbon/Silicon performing ‘MPFree’:

Study finds that filesharing is about convenience, not unwillingness to pay

Courtesy of an article in El Reg, I discovered an interesting report prepared by US think-tank American Assembly and Columbia University. Rather drily titled “Copyright Infringement and Enforcement in the US“, it’s a summarised set of results from an extensive survey of the America public.

Obviously, the US isn’t the UK and some of the findings may not necessarily be replicated here. But there’s nothing to suggest that this is an outlier; the results are consistent with what we already know. And, even to a Brit, the report is relevant because part of its purpose is to inform the debate over the US “Stop Online Piracy Act” which, if passed, will give the US government and US corporations extra-territorial powers over non-US websites.

The key findings of the report are, indeed, pretty much what we’d expect. The majority of music and film consumers engage in “piracy” – that is, unauthorised copying and filesharing – to at least some degree, but most of them confine that to low-level sharing with family and friends. By contrast, large-scale piracy is rare, with only 2% of music consumers and 1% of film consumers sourcing a large number of files from unauthorised sources.

Equally, the majority of consumers believe that sharing with family and friends is perfectly acceptable, from a moral viewpoint, but they do not have the same opinion regarding mass sharing across the Internet. If replicated in the UK, that has implications for the government’s response to the Hargreaves Review, where one of the consultation questions asks whether an exception to copyright for private copying should be limited to just the individual concerned or extended to their family or domestic circle. As I’ve previously pointed out, copyright law is explicitly a creature of stature, and cannot be derived from any underlying moral absolutes independently of public opinion. If a majority of people believe that a particular use of intellectual property is acceptable, then, in a democratic society, by definition it IS acceptable.

Other findings from the American Assembly research include such other no-brainers as

  • There is virtually no support for onerous penalties for copyright infringement.
  • For a majority of consumers, due process in such matters requires a court, not adjudication by private companies.
  • Any form of penalty which includes disconnection – including a “three strikes” policy – is hugely unpopular.
  • Even among those who support fiscal penalties, such as fines, the levels supported are considerably below those currently enforced by statute.
  • A significant majority of American consumers oppose copyright enforcement where the means of doing so involves any invasion of privacy or restrictions on their personal rights and freedoms.
  • The same majority opposes government blocking of websites and material.

As far as SOPA itself is concerned, the authors of the report conclude that the most likely practical outcome of the law – ISP-level blocking which also blocks some legitimate material – is opposed by 57% to 36%.

Other interesting results of the survey include the findings that piracy and legal acquisition are complementary – people with more fileshared material also have more purchased material – and, possibly surprisingly, increased levels of piracy correlate with higher incomes. This supports claims that people who use unauthorised downloads aren’t doing so because they can’t, or won’t, pay but rather because they are using filesharing as a “try before you buy” method or to fill in gaps in their collection that can’t easily be obtained legally.

Equally, the research also shows that piracy has also declined with the growth in accessible, convenient legal alternatives. Joe Karaganis, vice-president of American Assembly, told The Register that “All other things being equal, people prefer to obey the law”, but that “it’s overridden by price and convenience”. If legal services are too expensive or too cumbersome, people won’t use them. But, if they are offered at a price that people are willing to pay and in a format that consumers want, then people will use them. This corresponds with my own (admittedly very small) survey of Newzbin users who all claim that it’s convenience, not lack of willingness to pay, which pushes them towards piracy. It also tallies with the news from the BPI that digital sales have soared in 2011.

As with pretty much every report which is based on real research rather than corporate propaganda, this makes rather depressing reading for those who fondly imagine that the ills of the music and media industries are caused solely by unlawful filesharing and can be solved simply at the stroke of a legislative pen. But its good news for those of us who like our governments to develop policy on the basis of evidence rather than lobbying.

Digital music sales soar in 2011. BPI sees glass as half empty.

According to a press release from the BPI, sales of digital music rocketed in 2011:

  • Adele’s 21 reaches 3.8m sales – the biggest-ever selling album in a single year.
  • Fourth successive year of record singles sales, up 10.0% to 177.9m
  • CD still accounts for a strong three-quarter share of UK album sales.
  • Digital album sales grow 26.6% to 26.6m, while CD sales drop 12.6% to 86.2m.
  • Album sales decline 5.6% in volume to 113.2m in 2011.

This trend is, of course, entirely consistent with figures for the previous year, something which I’ve already commented on in response to a report from PRS. CD sales are dropping steadily while digital sales are increasing dramatically, but the latter still hasn’t reached the point where it compensates fully for the former.

To any neutral observer, this doesn’t give any impression of an industry in crisis. Rather, it’s simply part of the normal cycle that any business goes through as the economy and technology make their effects felt. We are, after all, still in one of the most economically challenging periods in recent history and it probably isn’t going to get that much better in the immediate future. In that context, a 5.6% decline in album sales shows reasonable resilience. I can’t find any figures for the whole of 2011 anywhere, but there were plenty of reports throughout the year which told of falling retail sales. And according to industry insiders, most of the drop in album sales has been compilations – artist albums have performed much more strongly.

So, reasonably good news, then, under the circumstances? Well, yes. As Gordon Taylor, BPI Chief Executive, is quoted by the press release as saying:

It has been another record year for digital singles, but the most encouraging news of the year is the strong backing consumers are giving to the digital album format. British music fans understand that the album remains the richest way to connect with an artist’s work.

He’s right, of course, and it’s good news that predictions of a “pick and mix” approach to music purchasing have, largely, failed to come true. People still buy albums, because they recognise that albums are the best way to interact with an artist’s work.

Adele
Adele

However, for the BPI, the glass is still half empty. Even though there’s no indication that filesharing is a significant contributor to the cause of the decline, the BPI can’t let facts get in the way of a self-serving whinge:

But while other countries take positive steps to protect their creative sector, our Government is taking too long to act on piracy, while weakening copyright to the benefit of US tech giants. The UK has already fallen behind Germany as a music market. Unless decisive action is taken in 2012, investment in music could fall again – a creative crunch that will destroy jobs and mean the next Adele may not get her chance to shine on the world stage.

Apart from the simple factual inaccuracy there – the UK hasn’t done anything at all which weakens copyright, all that’s happened so far is a report and consultation on changes to copyright law – this is just a recycled quote from, well pretty much every annual report by the BPI since home taping failed to kill music. For “the next Adele”, read “the next Coldplay”, “the next Cliff Richard” or even “the next Beatles”. It’s as if the BPI somehow believes that creativity can only flourish when guided by BPI members and protected by legislation. Or, as Tony Wadsworth, BPI Chairman, puts it:

But the challenge of sustaining this performance against a backdrop of chronic piracy means that Government action remains absolutely crucial for British artists and their labels.

What that means, in translation, is “We’ve done better than our pessimistic predictions, but don’t be fooled – we’re still too incompetent to sustain that success in the face of technological change, so we want the government to guarantee our future for us”. As for “Chronic piracy”, it really doesn’t seem to be happening at all. A 2.5% drop in artist albums (if we take Chris Carey’s Twitter comment at face value) is piffling, in the context of the challenges faced by the retail and entertainment industries as a whole. And the bigger drop in sales compilation albums is just as likely to be the result of entirely legal streaming – who needs the latest Now That’s What I Call A Rip-Off album when you can just click on a playlist in Spotify?

So, let’s recast those bullet points from the BPI press release into something more realistic:

  • Digital sales see massive rise
  • CD sales continue steady decline as customers switch to digital
  • Sales of singles show continued strong growth
  • Artist album sales remain resilient in the face of adverse economic conditions
  • Compilation album sales drop as consumers switch to streamed playlists
  • Unauthorised filesharing not a significant factor in sales figures

Now, there are certainly challenges there for the music industry. But they aren’t challenges that can, or should, be solved for them by the government. So let’s carry on with changes to copyright law that are designed to suit consumers and innovators, not the backward-looking music company executives.

30 Days of Music: 11 – A song from my favourite band

I’m not entirely sure that I’ve got a favourite band at the moment. I’m not so faux-cool as to pretend that I’ve never had one, or that I think there’s something thoughtless about having one. And a few years ago, I’d have had no hesitation about telling anyone who asked that my favourite band was U2. But I’ve fallen out of love with them a bit over the past few years, for a couple of reasons.

The first is musical. It’s a widely held opinion that Pop was U2’s lowest point, creatively – having started to experiment radically with Achtung Baby, they took a wrong turning and only got back on course with All That You Can’t Leave Behind. In some respects, I’d agree with that – I think Pop is probably the weakest U2 album that I own, and the fact that it’s preceded and followed by two of their best makes it seem even worse by comparison. But it seems to me that the experience scared them. ATYCLB (to give it the U2 in-crowd abbreviative name) was certainly a return to form, but it was also a return to formula. It worked then, because having had two albums away from their “classic” sound they had plenty of pent-up creativity to unleash on it on their return. But I have to say that I was disappointed with the next two. There’s nothing particularly bad about How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb or No Line on the Horizon, but neither do either of them have any stand-out songs worthy of joining the pantheon of great U2 tracks. And that, it seems to me, is because they’ve stopped taking risks, musically. HTDAAB and NLOTH are just a bit too derivative to be great. There’s too much there that sounds like an attempt to write the next Where the Streets Have no Name rather than an attempt to write something radically different from it.

It’s well known that Achtung Baby emerged from one of the band’s most troubled periods, when there seemed to be a prospect of the group splitting up and going their separate ways. These days, they seem maybe a bit too comfortable in each others’ company – like an old married couple who’ve been through their troubles, survived them and know that they won’t be breaking up now. But the absence of conflict has also led to an diminution of creative spark – something that’s maybe exacerbated by the fact that all of the band members have enough non-U2 activities and interests to keep them going. U2 have become an institution, and like all institutions, just a little bit tame.

Pop may have been U2’s weakest album to date, but I think that it’s also what they most need to return to – to have another attempt at something radically different that could fail as spectacularly as it could succeed. And even if it does bomb, I think their fans would forgive them if it sparks another All That You Can’t Leave Behind to follow it. But maybe the real fear is that this time, it might succeed – and leave the post All That You Can’t Leave Behind albums looking like the wasted years.

The other reason for U2’s loss of my affections, though, has been an increasing sense of disconnect with some of Bono’s politics. Which is a bit odd, in a way, because one of the things I used to admire about U2, and Bono in particular, was their crusading zeal for justice and their readiness to use their celebrity status to speak uncomfortable truths to politicians and world leaders. But recently, Bono seems to have crossed the floor, and started campaigning for the rights of the rich and powerful rather than the poor and needy.

There was always a risk that someone from the world’s richest rock band campaigning for debt relief would come across as hypocrisy, especially since the band seemingly made no attempt to channel any of their own wealth into the causes they exhort us to support. I don’t actually buy that particular argument, not least because I’m intelligent enough to realise that even the wealth of U2 would hardly make a dent in the global ocean of poverty and I’m not privy to what they do in private with their own money. But when they start endorsing proposals which would not only benefit themselves, but also damage the interests of those they purport to represent in the less developed world, then such charges become much harder to refute. Bono’s comments at the start of this year on filesharing and intellectual property rights are not only directly opposed to what I believe in and campaign for, but have also been expertly deconstructed to show that his opinions, if implemented, would have even more negative consequences for the developing world. This is a powerful enough rebuttal of the pro-IPR lobby that it’s worth quoting a paragraph here:

If Bono truly cares about poverty, education, health care and fair trade in developing regions like Africa, he should be against draconian intellectual property rights (IPR) enforcement regimes and for more balance. Numerous studies (including from the World Bank) have concluded that the strong IPR regimes exported from the West to the South (many through trade agreements) mainly benefit industrialized countries. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is the cost of re-aligning national laws to fit these regimes and the cost of enforcement itself. Resources that could be devoted to education, or health care or fighting poverty are instead spent on protecting transnational media companies.

If Bono really doesn’t see the contradiction here between his enthusiasm for protecting his intellectual property and his exhortations to governments to drop the debt, then he isn’t really looking very hard. And the argument that he’s simply defending the interests of small-scale music producers doesn’t wash either – I refer my readers once again to this view from the sharp end of independent music production by Steve Lawson.

By coincidence, today is also the day that the World Cup starts. You may not care about football, but you probably know that it’s taking place in South Africa. Ten years ago, South Africa was in the forefront of a legal battle instigated by the multinational drug companies who wanted to protect their rights to charge whatever they liked for their products, against the wishes of the South African government which wanted affordable access to the medicines they needed for the fight against AIDS. You can see an old BBC news report here, and a more recent retrospective about it here.

The drug companies lost that one. As the Avert website points out,

Big Pharma was eventually forced to back down and drop the case following a tremendous outcry from the international community including the South African government, the European Parliament and 300,000 people from over 130 countries that signed a petition against the action, angered over the apparent pursuit of profit over public health.

Ten years later on, we’re still fighting the same battles. Maybe Bono is simply too naive to realise that the same laws he hopes will protect his own earnings from the filesharers will also be used to protect the drug companies from having to help the poor and sick in Africa. Or maybe he knows, but doesn’t care. Either way, it’s a massive misjudgement on his part.

But anyway, back to the music. And apologies anyone who’s had to wade through all of this before getting to the song (although not much of an apology, since you could have just used the scrollbar!). Despite all of the above, I’ve picked a U2 track anyway. But I’ve picked one, and an accompanying video, which demonstrates the best of U2, and the best of Bono. The track is from The Joshua Tree, which is certainly the best album of their earlier classic period, and the video is from the 2001 Elevation Tour. I wasn’t there when this video was filmed – this is from Boston, USA, and I saw the tour in London – but this was one of the standout moments of the evening both live and when viewed again on the DVD release. Imagine this is London, imagine that I’m down there in the mosh pit (just outside the tip of the heart, as it happens), and relive the experience with me, Where the Streets Have No Name.

Direct link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVKWNGSmdB8