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Illegal Music Downloading

Volume 537: debated on Tuesday 13 December 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Greg Hands.)

I am delighted that this debate is happening today, and I have been told that I must declare an interest. As a former songwriter I remember that when I stood for election in Blackpool South, the local press exposed my misspent youth in the ’80s and asked me, “Can you tell us about your songs?” I said—without wanting to be political, even though we are in the House of Commons—“Let’s just say I wrote some dodgy records in the ’80s, but that’s nothing to do with the Government’s criminal record”—by which I meant, of course, the previous Government.

So, with the bad jokes out of the way, and given that nobody is laughing, let us get on to a serious subject. The purpose of my debate is not to attack any business in the entertainment industry, nor is it to propose draconian new laws. I see this debate as an opportunity to put on the record the important work being done to combat the problem of illegal downloading.

Over the next few years, superfast broadband will give rise to even greater integration between the internet and how we consume media. If we get the issue right now, we can ensure that the film, radio and television industries benefit from the experience of the music industry once they become more popular online.

Before I start setting out the issues as I see them, I want to thank the organisations that have spoken to me about the issues that I am going to raise tonight: the Performing Right Society, Google, Virgin Media, UK Music, the Internet Service Providers Association and the British Recorded Music Industry, known affectionately as the BPI. All of them have forward-looking and determined vision to help resolve the problem and protect all sectors of this important industry.

Many of the organisations have pointed out to me that real leaps forward have been made since May 2010. They have asked me to thank the Minister for the role that he has played in leading that—not least in his work in establishing the Creative Industries Council, which brings together groups with an interest in intellectual property. That new group, which first met in July this year, is part of a wider dialogue, led by the Government, to work to resolve the problems that we now face.

Let me take a moment to set out the issues as I see them. We should cast our minds back to the time when MP3s exploded into public consciousness in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Suddenly everyone was talking about a website called Napster. The music industry was left shell-shocked as huge numbers of songs were swamped by hundreds of thousands—perhaps even millions—of users. At that time the problem was that the industry was years away from developing an alternative legal way to access music online. My personal view is that most Napster users were not criminals who wanted to engage in illegal downloading and piracy; most were young people whose only aim was to create music collections on their computers. In the absence of a legal method of doing that, they turned to an illegal one.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that there are three prongs to the protection of our creative industries? There is the carrot, which may be changing some business models to encourage people to download legally, perhaps through differential pricing. There is the stick, which would make illegal the activities of internet service providers and individual users who persistently download illegally, and address the problem of companies, such as Google, that advertise illegal sites. There is also education. People need to understand that if they continually download, that could seriously harm future creative industry output.

I thank my hon. Friend for that information, and for the educational measures that he has introduced through his “Rock the House” campaign, which is gaining support across the nation and making Members of Parliament engage with the youth of today.

Today websites such as Spotify give a legal alternative to illegal downloading, but how do we ensure that people go to those sites rather than illegal ones? That raises serious questions and problems.

The hon. Gentleman was understanding about the fact that most young people who initially indulged in the activity were not criminals. However, does he believe that the fact that the BPI has from time to time acted in such a heavy-handed way with young people—sometimes even with their families, who had almost no connection with the downloading—has somewhat undermined its public support for very real concerns?

I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. The BPI’s response may have been knee-jerk at the time, but as I have tried to set out, no real legal alternative is coming through quickly enough.

Search engines are understandably full of illegal sites. That is not the fault of the search engine providers; their spiders trawl the internet and automatically add new sites. Most of us in the House have already experienced that, because our websites are largely ignored until, after a few weeks or months, automated systems at the search engine level find them. Suddenly people start to visit our sites, so those sites are added to search engines without anyone at the search engine ever having looked at them in the first place.

Everyone accepts that creating search engines by any method other than automation is more or less impossible. That means that we then have to ask search engines to remove pages that sell or trade in illegal material. Google allows anyone who has had their copyright infringed to send it up to 10,000 pages a day to be removed. Groups such as the PRS regularly use this service, and say that Google has removed offending pages within four hours. That in itself—I can say in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mike Weatherley)—is a step in the right direction by the PRS. The service is pretty impressive given the number of pages that have been removed, but it is also laborious for both parties. There is no obvious way to streamline the process, although I understand that discussions are now ongoing. And while the page is on the search engines it is very hard to know the difference between legitimate and illegitimate sites. Seventy-five per cent. of consumers admit to being confused.

Clearly, better education of young people is needed. I am chairman of the all-party group on media literacy. The aim of media literacy is to go into schools and teach young people how to function in this modern-day media environment, where claims made by advertisers and websites may be false. A group called Media Smart goes into schools with that aim and does a marvellous job, the BPI has a scheme called the Music Matters badge to educate consumers, and there are other schemes. However, a full programme on media literacy has not been rolled out, and is we must address that, as the internet is now so integral to modern life. The PRS suggests that we initiate a traffic light system whereby pages are rated green or red depending on whether they are legitimate. That scheme has some merit and could be considered at an industry level.

However, the fear shared across the industry is that legitimate sites will be wrongly accused of being illegal, so that perfectly legal sites are taken off search engines. Flagging sites as red could even open up search engines to legal action. We need to strike a balance between protecting search engines from this litigation and ensuring that they are not cavalier about taking down sites with no evidence. We must target sites that are built only to trade in unlawfully obtained music and are repeat high-volume offenders. The Internet Service Providers Association points out that it is hard to make companies the judge and the jury, as they may not have the expertise to arbitrate on such matters.

We must also ensure that advertisers do not place adverts on websites that trade in illegal content. All too often the offending sites are given an air of legitimacy by syndicated adverts from mainstream companies. Again, this is hard to combat, but advertisers must continue in this work. The Digital Economy Act 2010 empowers Ofcom to force internet service providers to reduce speeds for persistent offenders, and it may even suspend their accounts for short periods. Failure to comply with Ofcom leaves ISPs open to a fine of up to £250,000. The key point is that no one is expecting vast swathes of people to fall foul of these threats to reduce speeds or suspend accounts. Those are a last resort for use against those who refuse to use legitimate sites, the take-up of which is now growing. Through all those means—the development of legitimate sites, the action of search engines to remove illegitimate ones, and a limited threat of action for those breaking the law—we can start to build an environment in which people are encouraged to do the right thing.

The wider issue is the role played by free content. When I was in the music industry the country was awash with free content. Free-to-air television programmes such as “Top of the Pops” promoted artists but also allowed consumers to listen to music free. Much to the amusement of my colleagues, YouTube still has footage of me with a big mullet on “Top of the Pops” in the 1980s. Similarly, radio has offered free content for many years. Today “The X Factor” has developed into a free-to-air business model that relies on phone voting revenue in addition to advertising.

Allowing limited free content is the right thing to do because it promotes artists. YouTube does that very well because people can watch the music video, along with adverts, but it is not easy to download that video or record music from it. It is not impossible to record off YouTube, but the website itself does not offer that option. That again nudges people into doing the right thing. Watching a music video on YouTube generally ensures that artists and labels are paid properly for their work. YouTube is listed along with hundreds of other legitimate sites on Pro-Music. That project is an effort by the industry to help consumers to make the right choices, and I hope that more people will log on to the site. It does not promote any one site, but it helps to ensure that consumers can make the right choices.

The music industry, search engines and ISPs were taken by surprise by the download phenomenon. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) said, knee-jerk reactions occurred, but companies are now coming together to help people make better choices. I do not believe that we will ever stop illegal downloading completely—after all, in my day some people were determined to tape songs off the radio and “Top of the Pops”. Dare I say it, I can remember doing that myself in my teenage years.

I know. However, I firmly believe that most people will act legally if they can.

I finish by congratulating the Government and the industry on working to reduce the problem. With everyone committed to getting this right, the problems of the past will soon be forgotten. Let us remember that we are world leaders in the music and entertainment industry, and our brands and artists have dominated the world for the past 50 years. The internet raises issues, but as we address those issues we make the business stronger. Finally, may I say how proud I am to have a music industry background, and put on record how much that industry contributes to our economy here in Great Britain?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) on giving us the opportunity to participate in this important Adjournment debate.

Back when I was a newly elected young Member of Parliament, before the days of garage, hip-hop, trance or indie, and when the Beatles were listened to on cassette, I was fortunate enough to work closely with the BPI. I was even invited to many of the Brit awards; indeed, I was there when “Chombawallah”, or whatever they were called, disgracefully threw water at the noble Lord Prescott, and when Michael Jackson’s performance was interrupted by another star.

Through my association with the industry I grew to admire its work and appreciate what a jewel in the crown it is for Britain and all that is great here. I accept that, as my hon. Friend said, much has changed since those days, not least the music industry.

My hon. Friend has worked with the BPI and says that much has changed. Does he agree that the predominantly English-speaking world of the media and music brings a huge amount of economic benefit to this country? It is not just about the social benefit and the pleasure of listening to our music. We get great economic benefit from many of our bands, such as Chumbawamba and others, as we did from my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) in his heyday—not that I am suggesting that he is past his pomp.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I think the BRIT school is just fantastic, and I very much hope that the Prime Minister will showcase at No. 10 Downing street all that is wonderful about the industry.

The changes that I mentioned, particularly the switch to digital music, have resulted in many of the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale raised. However, I am glad that some things have stayed the same, not least the BPI. I pay tribute to it, because it does an absolutely fantastic job of protecting intellectual property. There are of course others who do equally impressive work, and I work very closely with Fran Nevrkla, the chief executive officer of Phonographic Performance Ltd and Video Performance Ltd. I pay tribute to many other people, too.

I strongly acknowledge the measures that have already been set in motion to tackle illegal downloading, but I cannot help but feel that we must listen more carefully to the experts, as my hon. Friend said. For example, I welcome the steps taken by search engines to rank legal download sites above illegal ones, but confusion can still be found among consumers, with up to 75% of customers still unsure about which sites offer licensed content and which offer unlicensed content.

Solutions have been suggested to that problem and to many like it, and it is our duty to listen to those suggestions very carefully. For example, PRS for Music has proposed a consumer education system to help internet users identify legal content. Meanwhile, a recent research paper has proposed the introduction of a voluntary code of practice for search engines, overseen by the Government. According to the BPI, nine out of 10 fans want legal sites put ahead of illegal ones. We must listen to suggested solutions more carefully, so that wish can be fulfilled. For that to happen, we need a closer working relationship between concerned parties—I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will touch on that. I therefore welcome efforts to bring together various groups.

I do not listen all the time to Beyoncé, I do not entirely get Lady Gaga, although she is a very interesting lady, and I do not share the world’s adoration of Justin Bieber, but I think that Amy Winehouse is a tremendous loss to the music industry. I have a broad taste in music and I can therefore understand the pressures that modern technology puts on the music and creative industries. My hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale has done the House a great service in allowing us to debate the subject.

It is a great privilege to conduct the Adjournment debate under your watchful eye, Mr Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) on calling this important debate on the music industry and the illegal downloading of music. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) for his important contribution and my hon. Friends the Members for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) and for Hove (Mike Weatherley) for their important interventions.

During the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West, I felt that I was in the middle of a pub quiz. Let me rise to the challenge and say that the band that poured water over Lord Prescott was Chumbawamba and that Michael Jackson’s interrupter was Jarvis Cocker.

My hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale is right to highlight the importance of the UK music industry. We are one of the few countries in the world that export music as a product, and the creative industries as whole form this country’s third largest export industry. For the first time since my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West was a young man—25 years ago—we have had three No. 1s in the United States, and Adele has just been nominated for six Grammys. My hon. Friend also referred to the success of the BRIT school, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and was brought into being not least by the efforts of Lord Baker.

We have a terrifically successful music industry as well as a tremendously successful film industry, which is enjoying one of its best years, certainly in the past 20 years. Indeed, for the past 20 weeks, a British film has been No. 1 at the box office. It is therefore incumbent on the Government to do all we can to protect the property of those who create music, films and the content of television programmes, which we all enjoy, so that they can earn a living from that. It is also important to stress that those who earn a living from music, film and television are not simply the highly successful people about whom we read in the newspapers and who may earn a significant amount, but many others, who earn relatively modest wages, whether they are technicians on films, people behind the mixing desk in a recording studio or session musicians working on a record. It is important that we work with them to support them and that we do all we can to reduce the prevalence of online piracy, which is basically theft of the property that those hard-working British people create.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale that we will never eradicate online piracy—such a goal would be foolish—but we can reduce it significantly.

In Northern Ireland, we have had many unfortunate examples of organised crime groups who abuse the system, bring out copies and sell them for profit. Does the Minister feel that more can be done to ensure that that does not happen, not just in Northern Ireland but throughout the United Kingdom?

Certainly, trading standards officers throughout the country work hard to counter the sale of physical counterfeit goods, but the real challenge, which the debate highlights, is the creation of the internet. It has obviously done much good for our economy and economies throughout the world, but it has also made it so much easier to pirate content digitally as well as sell counterfeit goods online.

My hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale referred to the Creative Industries Council. The Government are delighted to have established the council to highlight the importance of the creative industries and to work on important issues such as access to finance and skills.

I also hold regular round tables with rights holders, be that in the music, film or television industries, and internet service providers and providers of search engines, to discuss common issues. The last round table that we held was attended by open rights groups as well, so hon. Members who are interested in what happened can find out from very public blogs.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, one of the best ways to combat illegal piracy is to provide legal services that are easy to access for consumers. The creation of Spotify; Deezer, which has recently launched worldwide; WE7, which is based here in the UK; and up to 70 other legal music services has provided consumers with a range of different opportunities to purchase music legally. Some ISPs, particularly BT, are looking very seriously at providing an easy-to-access music service to their customers, which would significantly reduce—I hope—the demand for illegal music.

I agree that the way forward is to encourage sites that allow legal downloading such as Spotify, but the share of the money that the artist gets when a track is downloaded is tiny. It is not enough for struggling artists—the ones that cannot make money out of huge tours or selling lots of merchandise—to make a living. Has the Department looked into how the economics of that stack up?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady on that, but even some money is better than none. On the need for education, which was mentioned earlier, it is important for her and others who feel like her, including me, to emphasise when we go to schools that many musicians and artists are not Adele, Coldplay or similarly successful groups and artists, and do not earn a great deal of money. The more prevalent illegal downloading becomes, the less opportunity they have to earn a living.

The Digital Economy Act 2010 was passed by the previous Government and this Government are in the process of implementing its procedures. Hon. Members will be aware that, in effect, this is the “three strikes” Act. We are in the process of putting in place the initial obligations code and the cost-sharing code, which should happen next year. It is important to stress that the letters that go out to people who might have infringed the law will be of an educative nature. They will not be of a penal nature and they will not cut people off; they will simply make the point that it is apparent that illegal downloading has taken place from their computer. The letters will also advise them how they can access legal music sites and protect their computer.

On supporting legal download sites, I am delighted that Richard Hooper has been appointed to take forward the digital copyright exchange. We hope that the exchange will be an industry-led initiative that will make it much easier to license intellectual property, music, film and television so that it can be used for innovative and new services. That is part of the Hargreaves report, which, although we are absolutely intent on protecting copyright, is looking at how we can bring copyright law into the 21st century.

Hon. Members will also be aware of the success that the Motion Picture Association of America had in seeking an injunction against BT to block the Newzbin2 site using section 97A of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. That is something that the previous Government and this one urged on the industry, and we are delighted that existing law was used to seek an injunction to block a site that was intent on infringing copyright and on effectively selling illegal products over the web. That injunction has now been in place for two weeks, and I gather that the MPAA is seeking further injunctions against other ISPs.

I should stress that that process, too, is a legal process. Rights holders go to court and seek a legal injunction. It is not a voluntary process or a process outside the legal system, and that is exactly how it should be.

We are also working with internet advertisers to try to reduce the amount of advertising that appears on infringing sites. This can often be inadvertent, given the wide spread of internet advertising, but the Internet Advertising Bureau has made significant progress in reducing the amount of advertising that appears on illegal sites, and it continues to work on the issue. In fact, it is probably a world leader in the work that it is doing alongside the Internet Advertising Sales Houses association. We also work with credit card companies to ensure that their payment systems do not appear on illegal websites. So significant progress is being made on this issue on a range of fronts—credit cards, advertising, the blocking of websites and the implementation of the Digital Economy Act, as well as bringing rights holders together with ISPs and promoting legal sites for music and other content.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the work that Google is doing, and over the last 18 months relations between rights holders and Google have improved significantly. Google has set the bar in dealing with notice and takedown, and it is now possible for infringing pages to be removed from Google’s search engine in four hours, which is a very impressive turnaround time.

There remains a vigorous debate between rights holders and search engines, which in this case means Google for all intents and purposes, about the ranking of different sites. It is certainly a matter of extreme frustration to rights holders that typing in the titles of songs produced as if by a factory by my hon. Friend in the 1980s—such as “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley—results in some infringing sites appearing above the legitimate site, thus depriving my hon. Friend of income that he richly deserves. Some voluntary procedures have been put forward, and we understand that Google’s issue is that the algorithm is its DNA, as it were, but we also understand the concerns of rights holders. We are hoping to find a voluntary solution.

This has been a good debate, and it is important to highlight the work that we are doing to try to protect our content industries. I also wish to highlight the interest in the House at this late hour from a range of Members, all of whom have an impressive background in the creative industries.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.