Understandably, record companies are celebrating a landmark victory in the United States against a woman who was ordered to pay US$222,000 for illegally downloading music. This comes two years after Hong Kong secured the world's first conviction of a computer user for illegally distributing movies on the internet.
The two rulings break new ground in efforts to better protect intellectual property online. But the owners of the copyrights should not overestimate the deterrent effect of the courtroom victory on other users. Companies and artists have every right to defend their intellectual property. They are entitled to rely on authorities around the world to both pass and enforce laws that provide protection. However, companies also need to be realistic about their business model and their ability to charge clients a premium for such products in the age of the internet.
The public certainly needs to be educated; occasionally, an example should be made of blatant violators. But this area of the law is difficult to enforce. Most forms of creative media today have been digitalised. Such products are easy to store, reproduce and distribute online, be they movies, songs or text. It is impossible to police the entire internet, which spans the globe while jurisdictions are - by definition - geographically confined.
Technology and market forces have already resulted in content that is available on the internet generally being cheaper than the same product in physical form, be they compact discs, DVD, magazines or newspapers. As more forward-looking company executives and artists have come to realise, product values are not always the same in the virtual and real worlds. This is why the creative industries need to use not only the stick, but also offer more carrots. British rock band Radiohead has become the first group to allow fans to decide how much they will pay to download songs from its new album. Some record labels are working with websites, including several on the mainland, to allow free downloading of songs. While intellectual property rights must be respected, such innovative approaches are needed and point the way to the future.