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Columnists

Free booting

James Cary

james.jpgContrary to popular belief, the words of Luther aren't true. The best things in life are not free. (I am, of course, referring to Luther Vandross) For example, NBC's comedy 30 Rock, starring Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin, is one of the best things in life. And it isn't free. At least it isn't to me. I've just bought Series 3 on DVD for £15.99 from Amazon. One could argue that some of the best things in life can be found for a reasonable price.

Except the best things in life are free somewhere if you look online. In fact, as I type this article, I'm listening to Luther Vandross and Janet Jackson sing 'The Best Things in Life are Free' which I've just found on Spotify. And it didn't cost me a penny. Admittedly, it's not a great song, but there are plenty of good songs on Spotify. 'Owner of a Lonely Heart' by Yes; 'Baba O'Riley' by The Who; 'Sick and Tired' by the Cardigans. It's all there. Except for the Beatles, of course, who are very careful at protecting their work. But you can hear some Beatles played as if in a Baroque style. In fact, you can hear almost any artist except the Beatles. For free.

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Except it's not quite free - there are occasional adverts that are so annoying and inappropriate that I presume they are designed to encourage me to upgrade to the ad-free premium service. It's also costs the artists something. They are paid - although probably not as much as they should be. Does it generate sales or lose them sales? That is the question.

The problem is that we've been spoiled, especially in Britain, where we have theBBC  iPlayer which is free. Except it isn't. Its content and platform is paid for by the licence fee. People outside Britain slightly tilt their heads when you explain to them the concept of the licence fee. It is a weird anomaly. Parliament has granted tax-raising powers to the makers of Dick and Dom in Da Bungalow and Eggheads. The makers of X Factor, Peep Show or Soccer AM don't have this advantage even though many of them give away their content for free online as well.

But the tide is turning. Sky's Soccer AM hasn't been given away. In fact, Rupert Murdoch is about to charge for the Times Online. Media moguls have understood that they can't carry on as they have been. For all their talk of 'embracing the web as an exciting opportunity', Hollywood and the music industry are still terrified of the internet. Apple has done them a big favour with iTunes and thrown some dollars into the coffers, having taken their bite.

TV Networks in the USA have put content on Hulu and Youtube, while packing them with adverts in an attempt to claw back their bucks. But the fact is that anyone could find Series 3 of 30 Rock somewhere on the internet for free. All you need is a broadband connection and a five minute tutorial in using Bittorrent filesharing technology.

The problem is that such technology makes piracy extremely easy. It's so easy that even 'good' people can do it. But this is not new. The equipment has always been there to make copies of copyright material. It always seemed to strange to me that Sony have a record label - but have always sold technology that allows you to record things off the radio, and record CDs onto cassette or minidisc. This seems tantamount to giving a random stranger a gun and then acting surprised when they rob you blind.

The other mitigating factor is that the victims are wealthy and powerful. It's hard to feel sorry for Bill Gates when using a nicked or unlicensed versions of Microsoft Office. It's hard not to feel preached at when cinemas use loud music to convey the fact that piracy is like shoplifting. And it's hard to take bands like Metallica seriously when they bypass their hard rock rebel image to say 'Hey, you should ask nicely before borrowing something, especially if it's our music'. But however preposterous Metallica appear to be, they are surely right.

We live in an age where it just doesn't make sense to state something is simply wrong in itself. So record labels have to say 'stealing money from the big acts means that we can't invest in new acts'. Movie moguls say 'Buying pirate copies of films funds organized crime.' But Christians should know that stealing from the rich is still stealing, isn't it? And stealing is still bad, right? We haven't exegeted our way out of that one, have we?