Paying to have yourself beaten up.

The late, great Bill Hicks once bemoaned the media coverage of America's ill-fated "War On Drugs", not on the basis of the hysterical and wildly-counterproductive campaign itself, but on the grounds of the lack of balance. Where, he asked, were the positive drugs stories? Where were all the people who used recreational drugs, didn't kill anyone, didn't rob anyone, didn't rape anyone, and who just had a great time and then went on with their lives?

The issue of balance in news reporting is one that's never been more under threat than it is today. With huge chunks of the media owned by a tiny number of individuals, with "embedded" journalists serving as censored mouthpieces for the military in war zones (and non-"embedded" ones liable to being "accidentally" shot by that same military with slightly disturbing frequency), and with governments doing their best to intimidate reporters out of discovering the truth by exerting intolerable pressure on broadcasters, it's becoming increasingly hard to hear both sides of any story - especially where one side of the story has corporate money behind it. Nowhere is this more true than on the topic of piracy.

One of your reporter's favourite images from the recent "DVD Piracy Is A Crime" campaign.

Because pirates don't have a representative trade body like FACT or an industry-funded pressure group like the "Industry Trust For IP Awareness", and because going and getting any kind of counterpoint-type input to a story that doesn't involve having a press release delivered directly onto your desk by an official organisation is a bit too much like hard work for many modern journalists, corporate bodies tend to get a pretty much free hand to present any old cobblers they like as fact and have it repeated verbatim as the truth by the media. Now, you might not think that's much of a problem - after all, who cares if criminals aren't having their side of the story given equal screen time to that of the legitimate businesses and creators they're ripping off, right? - but there are much wider issues at stake.

The leisure industry's attempts at "educating" the public about piracy over the years have long been a source of hilarity to intelligent consumers. The unforgettable "Don't Copy That Floppy" has become a cultural icon, while ELSPA's run of UK anti-piracy magazine ads in the 1990s is remembered with great fondness by the gamers of the time. Both are so irredeemably naff that they probably did more to cement the idea of copying games as being "cool" than any amount of piracy could have. And let's not overlook this superb radio ad from the Business Software Alliance, with its chilling/side-splitting "young boy" voice.

The BSA, in fact, seem especially keen to both use and target children in the War On Piracy. Their recent competition to name its unwisely-judged anti-piracy ferret cartoon character attracted a flood of unhelpful suggestions, and the organisation's "Play It Cyber-Safe" campaign also brought a long-awaited pair of rivals to "Don't Copy That Floppy", featuring the world's most unconvincing "boy band" and a terrifying, un-named little girl (pictured below) who, eerily like President George W. Bush, has one giant eye and one normal one. The unfortunate child seems to have no right arm, either.

(Note to BSA: Calling a video file "young_girl.mpg" may bring your freakish starlet to the sort of attention on the Internet that she'd probably rather not be the focus of.)


But the undoubted comedy value of the industry's anti-piracy initiatives also serves to distract attention from the rather more sinister aims the ads represent. Because the 1.5m so far spent on this most recent campaign alone is in truth simply an attempt by massive corporations to buy changes in the laws of the United Kingdom. This campaign isn't about crime, it's about profits - and more specifically, about increasing those profits by taking away basic consumer rights from legitimate purchasers.

Intellectual property laws have been under sustained and determined assault by the major international leisure conglomerates for several years now, whether in the fields of music, film or games. Huge commercial pressure on weak, business-owned politicians has already resulted in appallingly unbalanced, draconian legislation like the USA's Digital Millenium Copyright Act and its European equivalent, the European Union Copyright Directive.

These laws have already brought about serious and unjustifiable losses of consumer rights related to copyright material, but the leisure corporations aren't finished yet. Flushed with these successes, they're keeping up the pressure on their tame Senators, Congressmen and MPs, who are obediently attempting to bring forth laws which will make the DMCA and EUCD look like fluffy little kittens playing in a meadow full of daisies.

"Who Is Really Behind DVD Piracy?" Apparently, it's some clean-cut, fresh-faced, happy young kids, working for sinister criminal overlord and self-confessed DVD pirate Jonathan Ross! Yikes!

The leisure corporations are conducting, in fact, a war not against pirates, but on their own customers. For many years now, honest consumers paying full price for legitimate products have been saddled with crippled, inferior versions of what the pirate users get for free:

- Pirate users don't have to keep their precious PC game discs spinning endlessly and noisily in the drive (and being subjected to repeated handling) while they play the game.

- Pirate users don't have to sit through all those infuriatingly long, unskippable splash screens / trailers / adverts before they can watch the actual movie on their new DVD, while the poor saps who paid for it in a shop do.

- Pirate users don't get their brand-new music CD home only to find that it won't play in their computer because it's been made in a non-standard-compliant "anti-piracy" format which prevents legitimate users from legally listening to music they've paid for.

- Pirate users can use their game consoles to play games originating from any country, while legitimate purchasers of, say, a game from Japan will be unable to play it on their legitimate, but UK-bought, Playstation 2.

- Pirate users don't have to uninstall perfectly legal software applications from their PCs, or put up with the secret installation of damaging programs if they want to play their new games, unlike the unfortunate legitimate consumers. 

And so on. But astoundingly, the entertainment business still doesn't think it's made life miserable enough for its honest, paying customers.

The new campaign's cinema advert (above) bellows "YOU WOULDN'T STEAL A CAR" (or a handbag or a mobile phone, apparently), wrongly equating the two entirely separate crimes of piracy and theft. But neither will this would-be car thief, who has stupidly forgotten his crowbar.

The industry is determined to make us suffer still further, and what's more, they're prepared to cheat, distort, and outright lie in order to further this persecution - not of pirates (who are and always have been essentially unstoppable) but of the long-suffering consumer. Hold on, though. Why on Earth would they want to do such a thing?

They want to do it because the giant leisure corporations have belatedly realised, faced with a near-saturated market, that having consumers own the movies, music and games that they buy is a far less lucrative business proposition than merely renting them those same things on a pay-per-use basis. (It's no coincidence that a large proportion of the members of the "Industry Trust for IP Awareness" - including Blockbuster, Choices Video, Global Video and the British Video Association - are movie-rental chains.)

These companies, both the retailers and the publishers, hate the fact that once you've bought, say, a music CD, you can then listen to it for the next 40 years without ever having to pay them another penny. Accordingly, they are desperate to downgrade consumer rights to such a degree that "purchasers" will to all intents and purposes not be able to do anything with their property without the corporations' explicit authority and approval. From there, of course, it's only a tiny step to having to pay a fee every time you watch / listen to / play it, which is the entertainment industry's ultimate goal.

Apple used the most expensive advertising in the world - that aired during the US Superbowl - to parade schoolchildren convicted of illegal music downloading, and coincidentally encourage sales for their restricted-use, Digital Rights Management-infected iTunes service at the same time.

The sort of hysterical scaremongering whereby the fairly minor offence of DVD copying is entirely spuriously linked by the entertainment business to terrorism and murder and all manner of genuinely serious crimes is nothing new for the industry when it wants the law changed to protect or increase its members' profits, of course.

The President (until last year) of the the movie industry's trade body the MPAA, the infamous Jack Valenti, is a man long experienced in ludicrous, borderline-psychotic dogma. In the 1980s, speaking for the movie industry's attempt to outlaw the video recorder, he told the US Congressional hearing that "The VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone." Tragically, the MPAA's attempts at banning the VCR failed, and the entire US movie industry was indeed utterly destroyed, in just the way Valenti had warned. (SUB: PLEASE CHECK THIS.)

And let's not forget Jamie Kellner, CEO of US giant Turner Broadcasting and the man who famously claimed in 2002 that anyone who videotaped a TV show then fast-forwarded through the adverts was a thief. It may be worth keeping the deranged mindset of the entertainment industry's figureheads - the people behind all the campaigns we're discussing in this article, the people who get richer every time you buy a DVD - in your thoughts the next time you hear the industry lazily and untruthfully assert that "piracy is stealing".

BOY-BAND LEADER: "Let's all praise Jesus and the BSA  for saving us from the evils of piracy!"

Of course, even if piracy WAS stealing, which it isn't, implementing even more insanely-draconian laws wouldn't make any difference. Pirates are unaffected by changes in the law because as criminals, they - by definition - don't obey the law in the first place. The only people who suffer from laws like the DMCA and the EUCD and the proposed new acts are legitimate, paying consumers like you and I, who are robbed of the right to protect our investments (by making backup copies for when fragile discs get damaged or worn out) and the right to enjoy them in perfectly legal ways, such as transferring your CDs to an iPod or similar digital player, or playing legitimately-bought foreign games in your UK game console.

Which makes it all the more baffling that media reports on absurd, dishonest and cynical attempts by commercial vested interests to pervert the legislative process almost never feature anyone putting the other side of the story.

It becomes slightly less baffling when you notice that BBC Worldwide is one of the members of "The Industry Trust For IP Awareness Limited".

So let's just get this clear - a division of the BBC (an organisation of which this website is a dedicated and committed ideological supporter) is taking our money, for products (DVDs and videotapes of BBC programmes) which we were forced by law to fund the creation of, and is spending it on a political campaign aimed at improving the profits of commercial organisations, persecuting law-abiding citizens and lobbying the government to erode consumer rights, on the basis of flatly untrue propaganda. In other words, we're being forced by the law to subsidise the efforts of commercial companies to try to force the government to destroy our civil rights. Huh?

Isn't there someone we can write to about this sort of thing?

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