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Ministry Of Sound sue the file-sharing fans

By | Published on Monday 19 July 2010

The Ministry Of Sound’s record label has broken rank with most other UK record companies and ordered its lawyers to send legal letters to 2000 people who they reckon have illegally accessed or shared their music on the good old internet. According to The Guardian, the letters, sent by London-based lawyers Gallant Macmillan, tell suspected file-sharers they will be taken to court for a proper whipping unless they stump up £350 in an out-of-court settlement for past copyright infringement.

Unlike the American and German record industries, who turned suing file-sharers into an expensive blood sport in the last decade (alas most of the blood came from the labels’ own wrists, given the sue-the-fans approach is the business equivalent of self-harm), there have been relatively few file-sharer lawsuits in the UK.

Although the BPI dabbled with suing fans between 2003 and 2006, it only actually launched 139 lawsuits, of which two went to court. Having won those two cases – and got judicial confirmation that file-sharing did constitute copyright infringement under English law – they stepped back from the sue-the-fans party, mainly because, despite what everyone will tell you, BPI bosses are actually quite clever and they realised such litigation would achieve little more than demonising their industry in the eyes of the public.

As previously reported, more recently it was revealed London law firm ACS:Law had started sending out legal letters to suspected file-sharers on behalf of various content owners, and had even made such work one of their USPs. ACS:Law were working, in the main, for smaller content owners, and it’s not thought they were representing any UK record companies, though they did seemingly have music industry clients.

It’s claimed that ACS:Law have not, as yet, gone properly legal with anyone they sent a threatening letter to, even though it’s known many people have ignored those letters. Some claim ACS’s strategy is to send out large numbers of legal letters based on only nominal evidence of file-sharing, on the hope a certain portion of those who receive a letter will settle no questions asked, just to avoid the hassle of proper litigation. And this makes the whole process profitable.

One lawyer adds that because some of ACS’s clients own copyrights in pornographic content, they will get a higher return from their legal threats, because file-sharers won’t want the embarrassment of fighting accusations they’ve pirated porn. Michael Coyle of Southampton-based law firm Lawdit told The Guardian: “A significant number of cases were connected to porn, seeking to embarrass porn users into paying up, and it developed from there”.

When ACS:Law’s letter campaign first came to light earlier this year the BPI specifically criticised the mass mailing approach, saying such a method was “at odds with the proportionate and graduated response advocated by BPI and proposed in the Digital Economy Bill”.

Despite also mass mailing suspected file-sharers, solicitors working for the Ministry Of Sound insist they will go all the way in protecting their client’s copyrights – ie those who don’t agree to the £350 settlement will be taken to court. Ministry’s reps seem confident they’ll win if any cases do go to court, because of the precedent set in the aforementioned BPI instigated file-sharing cases.

That said, one area of the file-sharing litigation swamp that hasn’t been tested under English law is whether someone can be held liable for the infringement another person undertakes via their net connection – ie is the net access bill payer liable for other’s surfing activity. Ministry’s legal men are relying on German rulings on that point, which they hope might prove persuasive in an English court.

But Coyle is not convinced. He says: “These firms are trying to argue that just because you pay for the internet connection you are somehow responsible for everything that is downloaded on it – whether you were responsible or not. It just doesn’t stand up in law”.

Even if Ministry do actually go to court and win, as much previously commented, this kind of litigation does a lot more favours to fee-charging lawyers than anyone in the record industry. Any damages earned are swallowed up by legal fees, such lawsuits do little to deter others from file-sharing, and it just makes everyone think record labels are run by cunts.

And, perhaps more importantly, it distracts label execs from identifying and developing the many as yet untapped new revenue streams that are out there for music rights owners who are willing to accept that the file-sharing battle – like the home-taping battle in the 1980s – can’t be won, but that that doesn’t mean artists and labels can’t make lots of cash out of their IP.