A sound decision

Record labels have realised that suing their customers is bad for business

A rare note of contrition was heard from the Warner Music boss Edgar Bronfman as he addressed an audience at a conference in Macau. As MacUser magazine reported in the middle of last month, Bronfman's assertion that the recording industry had "inadvertently gone to war with consumers" was a rare public confession - the blame for the rise of illicit peer-to-peer (p2p) file-sharing of copyrighted content lies partly at the feet of the industry and the glacial pace at which it has responded to consumer demand for digital music.

So when Reuters reported that EMI was considering cutting its funding to trade bodies, it was tempting to join the dots. These trade bodies - organisations such as the RIAA, IFPI and BPI - have made their name suing unlawful file-sharers on behalf of the industry. And, as Sony BMG's head of litigation revealed under cross-examination to a surprised Minnesota courtroom at the beginning of October, the programme of systematically suing their own customers has not proved a great money-earner.

Business is generally bad in the recording industry as worldwide sales continue to plummet. EMI was recently bought out by the Terra Firma private equity fund run by Guy Hands, who announced to potential investors last month that he would be able to trim management costs by £100m per year by curbing excesses such as perks for executives, including use of a £5.6m property in Mayfair.

The rumoured cuts to funding trade bodies could well be part of this belt-tightening. But technologists will inevitably interpret the rumours differently. After all, EMI was the first label to drop consumer-unfriendly digital rights management technology, and Hands, reacting to Radiohead's online release of their album In Rainbows earlier in the autumn, warned EMI that it needed to "embrace digital or die".

Yet recording industry lobbyists should not chuck out their Westminster visitors' passes too soon. Regardless of whether or not the battle to sue p2p file-sharers into submission is quite yet lost, the war rages on, and in the vast fields of France, a new front is opening up. To cries of despair from consumer groups, the French government recently announced an agreement to experiment with cutting off the internet connections of people suspected to be sharing content illegally. The plan is unlikely to work - the technologies to filter traffic are not accurate enough to ensure the right people get cut off - but this might not be enough to stop the plan coming here.

The recording industry has been the first and worst hit by the disruption of the internet, and its battles are a template for other industries, and a society in general, challenged by the new information environment. If the lobbyists are good for something, it is to demonstrate to the rest of us the general futility of fighting against technological change.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website openDemocracy.net, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How New Labour turned toxic