Cheryl Cole, Peter Mandelson and Kindle

October 28, 2009

This blog post is not merely designed to boost our web site stats by the careful juxtaposition of ‘Cheryl Cole’ and ‘naked’, even if my intro was influenced by that desire. (Incidentally, I apologise if you have been drawn to the site by the prospect of seeing Cheryl, or Lord Mandelson, naked – try again on Friday.) Two entirely unrelated developments have made me reflect on what it takes to create success in a new era and what that might mean for future legislation affecting the Internet.

First, it seems that the singles market, which according to some reports two years ago was yo-yoing between intensive care and the morgue, is not dead or dying after all. Cheryl Cole’s track ‘Fight for This Love’ has sold 290,000 in a week and that is just a part of 117 million singles sales for 2009 so far. And, despite the crackers blocking the supermarket exits, it’s not even near Christmas.

According to Lord Mandelson today, 20 tracks are downloaded illegally for every one downloaded legally. Does that mean that almost every household has someone who has downloaded Cheryl? After all 290,000 multiplied by 20 is … lots. Of course, it may be that half the 10 million who watched her on X Factor actually acquired the track but it seems more likely that the combination of perfect package and ease of purchase did the trick – just like the proponents of adaptation have been saying it would for years. In short, the record industry may have got its act together and made the technology work so as to make it a fortune – at last. Given that the whole history of sale of recorded music on vinyl, tape or CD is so brief an episode within the history of music as a commercial entity (and in some important developing countries, lasted but the blink of an eye), we do have to be sure that we are thinking about the present and the future, not the past, when grappling with regulation here.

Kindle is here in the UK at last and some relatively sensible people are falling over themselves to get one. The idea fills me with excitement even if the actuality is considerably less overwhelming. Such is the demand for these e-readers though, that I have been able to sell the Etch-a-Sketch version of this blog post on eBay for £50. Kindle will no doubt be imitated and may well be overtaken in the coming years but it may well have made Amazon billions by then – it is under considerable threat already. The relevance of Kindle to illegal downloading is that it’s ahead of the game – it is not a response to the rabid appetites of book lovers who have been illegally downloading Proust and Stephen King. It has the content locked up and filed away and available, even if not all that cheaply. But then the waters that Kindle swims in are not quite so dangerous as those that the record industry are navigating – or at least so I thought until I saw {‘Are we due a wave of book piracy?’:} on the BBC site and realised that Kindle too makes questionable use of crackable DRM.

All that deliberately oversimplifies – I am a supporter of copyright enforcement and think that many of those opposed to it have lost track of the difference between gratis and liberty (perhaps they could download it). But I do think that enforcement and adaptation need to go hand-in-hand. The danger must be that we legislate with our own version of three strikes when the problems are actually being eased by adaptation – ease of purchase, streaming licences etc.

And the even greater danger may be that we act as though music downloading is what the Internet is {i}for{/i}.