Virgin Territory, Perhaps, but Still not a Universal Solution

Here's some interesting news:

Virgin Media and Universal Music today unveiled plans for a ground-breaking digital music service designed to bring about a rapid and permanent change in the way UK consumers buy and listen to music.

The service -- a world first -- will enable any Virgin Media broadband customer to both stream and download as many music tracks and albums as they want from Universal Music's entire catalog, in return for a great-value monthly subscription fee. Downloaded music will be theirs to keep permanently and to store on any MP3 compatible device. An "entry level" offer will also be available for customers who download music regularly, but may not want an unlimited service.

To emphasise, this is unlimited, without DRM, and to keep – which, given the preceding 10 years of refusal to provide a decent music download service, is impressive, so kudos to all concerned. Alas, though, there are some thorns on the rose.

First, this deal is only with Universal:

The service is intended to launch later this year. Virgin Media is negotiating with other UK major and independent music labels and publishers to ensure it can offer a complete, compelling catalog by the time it launches.

Good luck with that.

And then it there's a stick to go along with the carrot:

In parallel, the two companies will be working together to protect Universal Music's intellectual property and drive a material reduction in the unauthorized distribution of its repertoire across Virgin Media's network.

This will involve implementing a range of different strategies to educate file sharers about online piracy and to raise awareness of legal alternatives. They include, as a last resort for persistent offenders, a temporary suspension of internet access. No customers will be permanently disconnected and the process will not depend on network monitoring or interception of customer traffic by Virgin Media.

So, in part, it seems this service will be used in order to justify tougher action against unauthorised sharing of music – the idea being that with it in place, there's no “excuse” for sharing stuff (although I seem to recall that our mothers always told us that sharing was *good*.)

The really problematic part is at the end: “No customers will be permanently disconnected and the process will not depend on network monitoring or interception of customer traffic by Virgin Media.” Well, yes, but intermittent disconnection is just as bad: if you don't know when your connection is available it becomes pretty useless. Similarly, you have to wonder how Virgin Media will know who to disconnect in this way, if they are not monitoring or intercepting traffic. The worst case would be if they just took Universal's word for it, pretty much along the lines of the increasingly-discredited “three strikes and you're out” in France.

So, although there is much to welcome in this announcement, it represents just the first baby steps towards a full and fair solution.

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