Suspected file-sharers of copyrighted material are to receive warning letters from their internet service providers after the six largest ISPs in the UK signed a government-brokered memorandum of understanding with the country's record label association, the BPI.
BT, Virgin Media, Carphone Warehouse, Tiscali, Sky and Orange have jointly agreed to send, through the next year, "hundreds of thousands of informative letters… to customers whose accounts have been identified by BPI as being used illegally", according to a BPI statement issued on Thursday. The BPI works out who it thinks is illegally file-sharing by trawling file-sharing websites and tracing back the IP addresses of users.
At the same time as the BPI statement was issued, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), which brokered the deal, launched a consultation on the legislative possibilities for cracking down on illegal file-sharing.
Major ISPs that have not signed the memorandum of understanding (MOU) include O2/Be and Thus/Demon. Asked by ZDNet.co.uk why O2 had not signed the MOU, a spokesperson for the provider said O2 will "read [BERR's] consultation paper with interest before deciding how we respond".
"This MOU represents a significant step forward, in that all ISPs now recognise their responsibility to help deal with illegal file-sharing," said BPI chief executive Geoff Taylor on Thursday. ZDNet.co.uk asked a BPI spokesperson to explain the discrepancy between this statement and the fact that only six ISPs have signed up, and was told the reference to "all ISPs" was a "genuine mistake".
Taylor also said the music industry was "constantly innovating to offer new, safe and legal ways to enjoy music online, and to create a future for digital music where creativity and copyright are respected", and suggested that the MOU would help pave the way for such models.
As things stand, nothing further will happen to those users who persist in using P2P services for illegal file-sharing after receiving a warning letter. This issue is still to be worked out "under the auspices of [the regulator] Ofcom", the BPI's statement said. The BPI's preferred course of action is the so-called "three strikes" procedure, under which the initial "educational letter" would be followed by suspension of the user's account, then cancellation. The European Union has rejected this approach, but it is likely to be adopted in some countries, notably France.
BERR's consultation will close on 30 October. Noting the "complex legislative environment already in place here including privacy, e-commerce and copyright laws", the consultation paper sets out the government's preferred course of action: a "voluntary industry agreement that is effective in dealing with the issue while being fair to consumers". However, while the paper says the government would be prepared to abandon the formulation of new legislation, it also says it is unlikely that all ISPs would sign up to a voluntary agreement.
The BERR paper also notes some of the difficulties that are inherent in identifying or proving exactly who has been illegally file-sharing. These include unsecured wireless networks, houseshares and the use of proxy servers.
The BPI's spokesperson acknowledged that the infringer and the account holder "may not be one and the same", but said the letters would give the account holder "the opportunity to take responsibility for their account" along with information on "how to rectify the problem".
The spokesperson refused to say whether the BPI would be pushing for the disconnection of repeat offenders, claiming the organisation did not want to "prejudge" the results of BERR's consultation.