Has the age of copyright passed?

In the halcyon days BC (Before Computers), the entertainment industry aggressively protected its original catalogue material. The business has conventionally been about three things: rights, rights and rights.

But in the brave new world AD (After Digitisation), will the accelerating pace of technological development and the mass piracy which constantly walks in its shadow shift the focus of music, film and games producers away from the notion of protecting copyright at all costs?

In the mid 1980s the advent of the compact disc – the first cheaply and readily available digital carrier – revolutionised the record industry.

Major companies dipped into their back catalogues and added to the bottom line with numerous reissues. The City took notice.

Castle Communications' 1989 purchase of the 20,000 original recordings in the Pye Catalogue was funded by a £3m rights issue; within a year or two the catalogue was on the balance sheet with a value of approximately £12m.

But now there are those who question the long-term value of catalogue. All revolutions have their victims and the digital revolution will be no exception.

Technological progress facilitates the mass piracy of artistic works, particularly sound recordings. MP3 technology, which compresses sound files, enables the downloading of free CD quality sound via the internet.

A teenager in a bedroom with a PC and a modem can make recently released music available around the world at the touch of a button.

Digital cloning techniques have made the piracy of compact discs and videos increasingly easy and cheap. The introduction of the DVD makes audio-visual material equally vulnerable.

The entertainment industry is facing the prospect of major revenue losses.

With the instant dilution of income, producers may find it harder to recoup the substantial investment necessary to develop artists and to market and distribute new products; without royalty streams artists will not be recompensed for their work.

Although artists have been lobbying for stronger protection, the music industry in particular is endeavouring to use new technologies to give benefits to the consumer.

Earlier this year, the first mechanical licences were granted in the US covering musical works downloaded from authorised websites.

Consumers may tell whether music has been properly licensed. A cynic might say that some consumers may not care less.

"Digital Sound Watermarking" has been hyped as an important way of reducing piracy. However, while competing interests dictate that record companies and hardware manufacturers squabble over details who is to say that within a few months another new technology will scotch these developments?

Some are beginning to question whether the effort is worthwhile; ie chasing each new development that defeats a new pirating technique with legal and technological counter-measures that, of themselves, have built-in obsolescence.

Meryl Marshall, the president of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, suggested: "The effect of digitisation is destroying the value of copyright. We are beginning to see the possibility ahead, say in five to 10 years' time, that it will become impossible to construct a way of legally protecting and policing copyright that makes any financial sense."

A senior executive with a major record company in Los Angeles said: "Everything that we have ever released to date on CD is dead; because these recordings can be digitally cloned their value is shrinking fast.

"We need a radical rethink in our strategies if we are to protect our interest in the future."

So what is the way forward?

The first use of a production may become paramount in maximising front end revenue. Simultaneous releases by digital downloading alongside traditional releases through record shops may become the norm. The use of interactive television with pay-per-view models could be targeted at audiences for whom being the first to see, hear and experience is important. Market research may establish which audience to target in this new context – and with which formats.

Another consequence could be the abandonment by major producers of specialist projects. Investment may focus on big ticket productions where revenue may be maximised in the short term.

Side-by-side with all of this is the further mass use of the internet by the ever-burgeoning cottage industry that already exists for the dissemination of musical and other audio-visual material.

It will be interesting to evaluate the effect of those cottage productions as quality and artistic value increases and as they become available to the consumer at less expense than the price of entry to major front-line productions.