Monday, August 08, 2011

Slipped Discs

The word portmanteau has a French origin, which is ironic as whoever first coined the frankly crap portmanteau "staycation" was unaware that the French have been holidaying at home for generations. And with 3,500 kilometres of coastline to call their own, you can't blame them.

Being August, Paris has cleared out. It's not quite I Am Legend empty - plenty of tourists are still taking on waiters in the locally popular game of 'I Know He Knows I Can See Him...But I'm Still Not Getting Served'. Parking is a treat, too. The spaces along the avenues are now large enough to actually park a car in them. My office is considerably more sparse. Like the Marie Celeste. Most of my colleagues have disappeared south - for the entire month - to jostle elbow-to-elbow with each other for a square metre of sand to call their own.

In their absence, I'm getting things done. Catching up. Stealing a march on the To Do list that will only intensify again in September. And, it would appear, Her Majesty's Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is doing much the same thing.

Amid last week's news of another global financial meltdown came word that HMG is to end the arcane and, frankly, useless laws which govern digital copyright. Until now, if you have ripped a CD to your iPod or compressed a DVD for your laptop, you should by rights be currently trading tobacco in the exercise yard of one of Her Majesty's other noble establishments.

More than a quarter of the British population owns an MP3 player today, PC ownership is more than three-quarters of UK households, and 55% of Britons have admitted to copying CDs onto their PCs, so the country's prisons should be bursting at the seams with digital pirates. But in a rare outbreak of political common sense, the British government has agreed to implement a number of proposals from the Hargreaves Review on digital copyright. Amongst them is the legalisation of 'format shifting' CDs and DVDs on to portable devices, on which we can continue to enjoy our legally-bought purchases in more convenient locations.

"This move will bring copyright law into line with the real world, and with consumers’ reasonable expectations,” said Vince Cable, the UK minister for business who might also now be entitled to use 'HDMI' as his middle nameWhile this is hardly the repeal of the Corn Laws, it is a small victory for libertarians, and an equally small victory for those of us who always considered the digital copyright law - which is rooted in an Act of Parliament first passed in 1709 - utterly irrelevant in the 21st Century.

"The [Hargreaves] review pointed out that if you have a situation where 90% of your population is doing something, then it's not really a very good law," Simon Levine, head of the intellectual property and technology group at DLA Piper told the BBC. This argument is reminiscent of the immovable digital force which made a mockery of Ryan Giggs' super-injunction some weeks back. All of which also highlights the somewhat lawless frontier that digital technology has opened up.

Encouragingly, the proposals have been blessed by UK Music, the industry association headed up by former Undertone Feargal Sharkey. "The music industry has no problem with private copying or format-shifting, so long as it doesn’t put UK artists and composers at a disadvantage to the rest of Europe," UK Music said in a statement on its website. "Our quarrel is not with consumers. They should be free to enjoy the CDs they bought on the devices they own."

Progress, then. During the 1980s, UK Music's fellow industry body, the BPI, staged a Kanute-like campaign which had the dust sleeves of vinyl records emblazoned with a cassette-and-crossbones logo and the alarmist legend HOME TAPING IS KILLING MUSIC. It wasn't.

The music industry fought bravely to stop what it felt was a popular practice that was denying artists profits and, presumably, impacting the cocaine habits of hundreds of record company executives. Guess what? The music industry carried on making money by the sackload.

Unfortunately, today it is not. Digital and physical album sales fell by 7% in 2010, with CD sales dropping by by 12.4% - the sixth consecutive year music sales have declined. Sales and rentals of DVDs fell by a similar figure. Bricks-and-mortar record and video shops are closing hand-over-fist - HMV is planning to sell or close 60 of its outlets in the course of this year.

Even car manufacturers are acknowledging that music is more likely to be found these days on a flash memory card or a USB stick, and are providing inputs for both in vehicles. Ford has even rung the death knell of the in-car CD by announcing that it will drop line-fit disc players from its cars. So, now that it's legal to create an MP3-CD to play in the car, you soon won't be able to.

As magnanimous a gesture of common sense as the legalisation of format shifting is, it has clearly come on the downslope of the optical disc format. A technology first conceived by a Philips researcher in 1969 is on its way out. Apart from the last huzzah that is Blu-ray Disc, ownership of physical media just isn't popular anymore. True, there are still Luddites like me attached to the tactile experience of opening up a jewel case and reading the sleeve notes but - as What Would David Bowie Do? documented last October - even I've embraced online distribution and downsized my disc library.

I now have a fast, 100-gigabyte, fibre-optic Internet connection. I rarely use a car these days. All the TV and movies I could ever watch at home are available to download  easily and quickly, and straight on to my laptop, iPad or phone. Which means that if I do ever take a holiday this year, I'll be taking my entertainment with me legally. Not that it ever bothered me before...

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