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by John Waghorn on 16th August 2012
A big topic of conversation in recent weeks has concerned the ongoing debate between search engine giants Google and the British music industry’s trade association. The issue lies in illegal downloading sites and how easy it is to access these within Google’s search engine results pages. The knock-on effect of this means that thousands of people have the ability to download pirated music within just a few clicks on their computer.
The BPI (British Phonographic Industry) have accused Google of making it too easy to access these sites in their search pages, stating that it results in a significant and damaging financial strain on the artists, record labels and general state of the British music industry. Let’s take a closer look at the implications of Google’s search results and the impact this is having on the music industry.
Downloading music illegally
Illegal downloading is nothing new, it has been around for years, and it has always been an area of contention between individual parties. Sometimes the issue has been given greater media attention, and at other times it fades into obscurity until the next wave of complaints come to fruition. Nonetheless, I personally believe it’s an issue that needs to be addressed. History has told us that when illegal music downloads are readily available, it has a damaging effect on the industry. How to finally resolve this is still up for debate.
One of the most famous cases in music copyright infringement concerned illegal peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing site Napster. Back in 2000, heavy metal band Metallica filed a lawsuit against Napster due to the circulation of an unreleased demo and also their full back catalogue surfacing on the illegal sharing site. Rapper and producer Dr Dre also followed suit soon after for similar reasons, and a year later Napster settled both cases after being shut down in a separate lawsuit involving some of the industry’s major record labels.
However, as one site collapses, another rises in its place and within a short space of time the popularity that Napster had gained resulted in a number of alternative illegal sharing sites appearing online. The damage had already been done, and although Napster came back as a legal online music store (later merging with subscription service Rhapsody in 2011), illegal sites can still easily be found today via the search page results.
So what are Google doing to combat this issue?
Google have already stated that they are removing millions of links to these sites so they don’t appear in the results pages and evidence of this is easy to spot. You only need to type in a popular artist such as Adele and include ‘mp3’ at the end to see that a third of the results page shows illegal sites where users can obtain the music (see image 1) and two thirds of results thereafter which display a list of removal results listings (see image 2). However, legitimate downloading sources appear much further down in the results. This varies depending on the artist you are searching for, but in some cases, legitimate results appear as low down as page four or five. This isn’t favouring the artists in any way financially and it’s unlikely that everyone who listens to an illegal download will go on to actually pay for an album.
To give credit to Google, they are addressing the issue of copyrighted material within the SERPs and not just turning a blind eye. But could, or rather, should they be doing more to protect the industry?
The artists are fighting back….again
The BPI clearly want Google to push illegal sites further down in the search rankings and allow legitimate downloading sources to be viewable to searchers. But where do the artists stand? Some artists have tried to work with the revolution of technology by using changing consuming habits to their advantage. For example, alternative rock band Radiohead decided to self-release their 2007 album ‘In Rainbows’ as a digital download for two months, asking the consumer to pay what they wanted for the album.
The band took this stance as a way to gain more control over the revenue generated from the record, due to the fact that their previous four albums had leaked online. It’s fair to say that this wasn’t solely down to Google’s search rankings, as people were obviously familiar with the sites where they could get hold of the music. However, it did have a contributing impact on the damage done.
Although some people only paid the minimum amount, this was certainly one way to turn the attention away from pirating music, as consumers could pay a minimum of 45p for the record based on a transaction fee. Soon after digital release, the album was released as a physical copy and it entered the UK Album Chart at number one. Was this clever marketing as well as an attack aimed at pirated music?
Five years on from Radiohead’s In Rainbows, a number of artists are once again taking a stand, this time round by attacking Google over piracy concerns. Artists such as Pete Townshend, from legendary rock group The Who, Queen’s Brian May, Elton John, Tinie Tempah, and Lord Lloyd Webber have all signed a letter to the Daily Telegraph asking for tougher action to be taken to deal with illegal copying.
The extent of this issue has even reached the government, as the letter has been sent to David Cameron. The letter itself goes beyond solely blaming Google by stating that broadband companies and online advertisers must do more to tackle illegal music downloading. It also urges the government to instigate anti-piracy laws sooner rather than later since they were passed just two year ago. So it seems that everyone is getting involved and the blame is not just focussed on Google. In one sense, there is only so much that the search engine giants can do. Google need the help of other online businesses, including those on the server side of things, in order to really tackle the problem head on.
The punishment for illegal downloading
There have been cases whereby individuals and the creators of illegal sites have been fined for illegal downloading and the creation of sharing sites. In the example of The Pirate Bay, this has gone one step further. British Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have recently been ordered by the High Court to block access to the website in the UK. The move was instigated by The BPI and its major music groups. Along with Google no longer accepting some illegal music sites in their results pages, the above move is definitely one step in the right direction. It also shows that both Google and the ISPs are working to resolve, or at least diminish, the impact of illegal music sites.
Since I started writing this blog post it has also emerged that Google are set to lower the search engine rankings for sites which have received a high volume of Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) removal requests (The same ones that featured above in the Adele example). This will be achieved by an update to their algorithm after ongoing pressure from the record labels. However, it’s not yet known how this will impact YouTube, a site which hosts thousands of videos, some which already contain a removal message within their site for alleged infringements.
Our changing consumer habits
Some have argued that Google can only do so much in the battle, and a big part of illegal downloading comes down to the attitude of the consumer. Ultimately, they are the ones who decide to download, knowing that when they do so it’s illegal. In one respect, it’s fair to say that if all of the search results were clean, you would still be able to access illegal music sites if you knew the web address. People are clever enough not to rely on Google to tell them where they can get their music from for free. Although on the other hand, this would help to stop the attention being drawn to these specific sites. This in itself would take some of the weight off the shoulders of the music industry.
Instead, and to counteract the issue, the focus in the search results should be placed on legitimate download and streaming music sites which have born off the back of the frustration of illegal networks. Spotify, Deezer, and iTunes are all prime examples. Again, the issue here is about regaining a decent level of control so that the artists and labels can prosper.
Some of these sites allow you to access free music for a limited time before encouraging premium signups with a cost attached per month. Others, such as iTunes, allow you to purchase downloads for a cost each time you download. These are the exact sites that should gain greater promotion in Google so that there is a strong reinforcement on legal streaming and downloading.
The demise of physical formats
Statistics from The BPI in an article in The Guardian show that digital album sales for 2011 increased by 26.6% year on year, whilst physical albums on CD declined by 12.6%. It’s clear from this that consumer habits and the way we like to access music today has shifted. In one respect, the labels took the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ attitude. Illegal sites were dominating and the industry had to adapt to this transformation. So they created similar sites to obtain the music from, with the main difference being that you actually had to pay for decent quality downloads. The knock-on effect meant that slowly, but surely, the industry were regaining control despite the vast number of illegal sites which continue to exist.
Martin Mills, founder of Beggars Group (a British record company which owns other labels such as Rough Trade Records)m sums up this prospective well in a Gigwise article: “Physical is still important to us but the lesson we have learnt over the last few years is that you have to strike a balance between giving people what they want on the one hand and actually being a business and charging for the content”.
The updates Google are making are certainly helping to push users in the direction of legal content. These sites are important for the industry as they generate a healthy amount of income for the artists and labels. For example, Spotify recently revealed that $180m was paid in royalties to artists last year and the figure is believed to double to $360m this year. The site itself has 15 million users, with around 4 million users paying the subscription fee in order to access an unlimited amount of music. With the growing popularity of these sites giving something back to the labels and artists, along with the work and updates Google are focussing on, it looks as though the wheels are in motion and change is on the way.
It’s not right that illegal sites outrank legitimate sites in the search pages for the promotion of music, although Google are working on the issue with the help of ISPs. Regardless of whether this is down to the legal threats from the labels, or more of an attempt to deliver fair and transparent results doesn’t really matter; the issue is slowly being resolved. Google need to keep this momentum going in order to really deal with the issue, but it’s hard to say whether they will ever eradicate all of these sites due to their sheer volume.
After years of abuse and financial suffering, the music industry is starting to turn things around. Google are a powerful force, yet they can’t do everything as the damage has already been done. It’s now about putting more power back in the hands of the music business so that the artists, record labels and the rest of the music industry get their fair share of the pie.