Opinion: Will the Lib Dems stand up for creative industries?

A Labour friend of mine was smugly telling me about last week’s launch of the Labour Creative Industries Network. Much of this reminded me of their ‘Cool Britannia’ efforts circa 1997.

However, it also got me thinking about how the creative industries see us. We too have some nice words about creative businesses on our website – but do we really have a sense of how we want to support and promote this economically and culturally important sector? The DCMS is the only department where Lib Dems have no ministerial presence. There is a hair’s breadth in arts policy between us, Conservatives and Labour. We don’t have anything really distinctive to say.

However, what really concerns me is that the main messages we are currently sending creative businesses are contained in the Stimulating the Digital Economy motion coming to conference on Monday.

I will refrain from taking a cheap shot about how Lib Dem policy on creative industries is coming via a paper focussed on IT and the internet. However, I do have real concerns about its contents and the potential for unintended consequences for creative talent. And I know I’m not alone in this.

The paper says it wants to ”hand power back to the creators and innovators”, but there is little evidence of how this goal might be achieved. In fact, its underlying suggestion is deregulation of the IT sector, as this is “an industry that is particularly sensitive to an over-zealous approach”. Imposing “burdensome regulation” on internet service providers and search engines would “hamper innovation and chill creativity”.

I can remember a certain Iron Chancellor once saying similar things about the financial services sector.

Clearly, there are currently a range of issues – from online privacy, to copyright infringement, to the sexualisation of children – that are of huge concern to the UK population. The ingenuity of internet service providers and technology giants will be essential to help solve them. I can’t see how further deregulation will help.

However, in terms of creative talent, when it comes to the little guys who produce valuable intellectual property, there are few suggestions about how they might sustain a livelihood in such an “open” market. There are no recommendations that would empower them, or protect their work. Just an inference that writers, photographers, musicians, film makers and artists should – like the rest of us – get used to life on a “self-governing” internet.

At a point where the internet is becoming such a vital tool for all aspects of life, is this really the signal we want to be sending out to artists and small businesses? Or, for that matter, the voting public?

We are a Party that believes in the right for individuals to develop their talents to the full. We want to foster diversity and to nurture creativity.

I’m not claiming there are easy answers here, but how do we safeguard the UK’s creative talents and allow artists to earn money for their work, whilst also keeping the internet as free from censorship and control as possible? There is little in this paper that suggests we know how to deal with the dilemma.

I should know better than to challenge the wisdom of Julian Huppert and Bridget Fox (if you see me cowering behind a sofa at conference you know why). But when I read the paper, this is the one issue that jumped out to me. How does it help the small photographers (of which we have many in the party), the small musicians who sell music online, or the start-up film-makers, designers, textile printers and screen printers who work on small margins?

* Laura Willoughby is the Liberal Democrat Political Adviser at London Councils.

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  • Stephen Williamson 18th Sep '11 - 6:12pm

    Hold on a second, doesn’t this paper support the Hargreaves proposals which could add up to £2bn to the economy a year? Did you read the paper?

  • Matthew Pape 18th Sep '11 - 6:23pm

    I don’t understand. You talk about a lack of regulation being a problem, but then also talk about small creative people being able to gain a foot hold. Surely those people need an open Internet to be able to do that? I don’t think you quite understand how the Internet works. In countries where it’s free and open (US, UK etc) online business flourishes at all levels. In counties where it’s closed, regulated and monitored it’s not expanding no where near as fast and where it does, it’s usually the small guys who loose out.

    I’ve not read the paper, but I really don’t think you know what you’re talking about.

  • Honestly, I think that the creative industries are more than capable of looking after themselves in this regard – they certainly seem to manage to survive even where non-profit filesharing is not explicitly illegal (Canada) or even explicitly legal (Spain). Artists are not capable of looking after themselves in this regard but it is naïve to assume that their interests always correspond with that of the large companies within the creative industry – for every artist making real money off an album they released in the 1960s there are many with their music out of print (or even completely unreleased), and therefore not making a penny, but still the intellectual property of the label.

    So I see here just advocacy of additional powers to the police in order to protect large, powerful businesses from a changing marketplace. This advocacy is well-meaning and intended to help artists but is in practice misguided and very illiberal, for instance disconnection constitutes group punishment as internet connections are usually shared.

    Targetting technologies used in piracy hampers legitimate use of them and harms other consumers and DRM software can often prevent those who purchased a product from using it. For instance, to watch some of my own DVDs (legally purchased) on my PC I need to use software for removing region locks and copy protection from DVDs, as the DRM seems to wrongly think the DVD is pirated.

    Quite frankly, I think that looking at this from a law and order standpoint is pointless. I’m firmly of the view that any law criminalising a product or service for which there is a significant market demand is impractical and most likely impossible. This is why Prohibition in the USA failed so miserably, why the War on Drugs is doing the same and why HADOPI has yet to make any headway in France. Ultimately this is a matter of markets, not of law and order. A marketplace does not have to operate within the law and it just happens that piracy is a very successful service that just happens to operate outside of it and compete with legitimate distribution of media.

    Any attempt to simply penalise or legislate copyright infringers into submission is doomed from the get go, so you can’t really do much to directly decrease the marketshare of piracy – as technologies used for piracy tend to also have legal applications there’s a real risk of harming consumers in this process if it’s attempted. So instead of attempting to reduce piracy directly the best way to genuinely help artists is to make legitimate distribution more competitive and to outcompete it.

    This means either refining the existing model, lower price points, richer additional content, perhaps make it more visible where the model supports people who don’t sell massive quantities of units. I believe that the film industry is doing quite well with regards to this but that the music and (to a lesser extent) television industries are doing relatively poorly.

    Alternatively, completely separate business models could be developed. In the music business artists no longer make big money off album sales and major label contracts as in the 90s (for a lucky few…) but instead make money largely from live shows. Self-release and self-promotion has become more viable with the internet and sites such as bandcamp, last.fm and MySpace, meaning that the services of labels are increasingly just desirable rather than necessary. Cheesy 80s rock band Marillion have done rather well with this approach.

    Some artists even effectively use piracy as an extreme form of advertising – one CD I bought had a sticker on it implicitly encouraging people to share the (signed) artist’s releases online (the phrasing was “I’m all about spreading the word”), albeit asking people to not share that release online, as it is was a rarities CD (self-released) that the artist thought was of lower quality than his other releases.

    This is not as mad an idea as it may sound to some, radio effectively works on the idea that if people hear a song that a proportion of them would want to buy it (and the music industry was initially hostile to this technology). Unlike radio a purchased album is exactly as convenient to listen to whenever desired as a pirated one, so uptake will be lower, but this could still lead to increased merchandising or live ticket sales. I wouldn’t suggest that all artists should definitely use this as a business model but certainly it is possible to build piracy into a business model (though how successful it is I don’t know).

    Put bluntly, I don’t see a need to protect these industries. This is a situation which the invisible hand is likely to find a solution for, and to which the industries have already started adapting to. They outcompeted what they then considered a form of piracy (home-taping) with the CD and DVD, so in some way the industry can likely outcompete (or at least co-exist in the long term with) internet piracy if flexible enough. Streaming or legal download services like Spotify or iTunes are far from perfect, not least because the artist appears to make an even smaller proportion of the profit than with physical releases, but they at least represent an attempt to compete with piracy, rather than simply complain about it.

    I would predict that the film and television industries will survive more or less how it is for the medium term, though they may well cease physical releases eventually and focus on downloadable content. In the music industry I would imagine that the old model of singles, radio play and contracts will still apply to top 40 artists but that major labels will increasingly shed most other artists. These artists will self-release or release on indie labels (which are more fragile but also more flexible) – web-only indie labels will probably become more common.

    The gaming industry will carry on much as it is now, with similar business trends (medium-term), though PC releases will likely be more internet focused to reduce the attractiveness of pirated games. The adult industry, curiously very rarely mentioned in these discussions, is probably unviable in its current form, however.

    Other areas of creative industry I think have relatively little to react to. High-end software (such as, say, Adobe Photoshop) has usually sold primarily to a business market which is unlikely to risk piracy so the extensive piracy of this kind of software is not likely to have lost sales in any markets that are not mainly hypothetical. In publishing the main problem is still physical piracy in the developing world (very much a big issue) rather than internet piracy. As far as I’m aware “high art” such as paintings, photography and sculpture are similar in this regard. I’m not even sure how piracy even can apply in any significant way to some arts (architecture for instance).

    These predictions are all made regardless of whether a clampdown on piracy occurs, as honestly, I don’t think that it’ll achieve squat if one does occur.

    CONCLUSION: This is a market problem. The industry will adapt in time. There is very little productive anyone can do about any of this without prescribing a cure worse than the disease. That would be illiberal.

    As an aside copyright infringment is definitely not of concern to the general population. I’m not sure where you got that idea from, as it’s an extremely common crime without any real stigma attached to it.

  • Great post Laura – nice to hear someone standing up for the content creators. There doesn’t seem to of been much debate regarding the bizarre possibilities the Hargreaves report opens up, or the admission that much of the DCE part of it is entirely dependent on technical implementation, and so cost. At a time of cutting costs, is it really a good point to embark upon another difficult national IT project that experience would suggest will fail? Is that good policy, or are we slipping behind the curve?

    I think a lot of people are being naive on this issue and hoping it will take care of itself, or that it doesn’t really effect normal, every day people. If internet works are stolen that reduces tax take; that’s no good for anyone – it means that everyday people are paying for the greed of others. If we’re to survive in an ever more competitive industry, we need to protect our assets.

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