At the Berlin music trade fair, Popkomm, the nightmare of every music executive again takes center stage: Internet piracy. Despite tougher laws, users who download illegally still have little to fear.
The music industry's nightmare -- illegal downloads
It's still the big topic at the world's largest music fair, hosted this year in Berlin. Just as in years past, the industry is tormented by falling sales figures -- and blaming those swashbuckling Internet pirates.
They still prefer to steal music from the Internet, rather than buy it. But, hang on. The days when surfers could blatantly steal songs and films with impunity are supposed to be over, aren't they?
German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries said that starting in mid-2005, those who illegally download music, films and software will have to run from the law. The proposed punishment is up to three years in prison plus a fine.
Trust your gut
But the lines are blurry. According to Zypries, the downloading of music files is still generally allowed. She's appealing to Internet users on music swap sites to use their common sense.
"You can do it within limits, as long as you have the feeling that what you're doing isn't illegal" Zypries said to users at large. "If you have the feeling it is illegal, then you'd better not do it."
Hapless users, then, should rely on gut feelings to tell them whether or not they're operating within the law, or whether they're stealing.
Starting mid-2005, making private copies from one's own collection of copyrighted CDs and DVDs will also be illegal. Non-copyrighted CDs and DVDs, however, can continue to be copied and distributed to friends. Still, around 90 percent of the music, films and software available on Internet swap sites is guaranteed to be legally off-limits.
Difficult to prosecute
But that doesn't much impress the users of such Web sites. Germany has around seven million Internet pirates, and they are the ones who've given the music industry something to fear. The chances that police officers will make millions of house calls are slim.
Technically, it's easy to trace the pirates, because with every transaction, they leave behind their IP address. That's like the computer leaving its fingerprints at the scene of the crime. But a quick get-away is still possible, because the sheer number of illegal downloads means that the Internet police have more information than they can possibly process.
That's why the Society for Copyright Protection (GVU) in Hamburg has offered a helping hand. But rather than going after the occasional, private offender, they've got their sights fixed on the big fish. But who are the big fish?
"For us, the criteria is that there's a flow of money involved," said Jochen Tielke, the head of the GVU. "We're interested in those who want to earn money through their criminal behavior. The user who downloads a film once in a while is not an interesting target for us."
When a small fish accidentally gets caught in the net, judges often don't know what to do. The justice ministry hasn't come up with exact guidelines as to who counts as a big fish, and who's among the small fry.
"The justice ministry isn't responsible for that, that's what the state prosecutors do, and that's a matter for the individual states," Zypries said.
The result is that the entertainment industry is going to have swallow further losses through piracy, because millions of hobby pirates on the Internet are the ones calling the tune.