Digital media piracy an “epidemic” in Spain, as officials try to fight it

Story by Carly Metz

MADRID – At Discos la Gramola in downtown Madrid, the scene on a recent Saturday is everything owner María Gutiérrez has hoped for when she opened her record store 17 years ago.

Customers flip through rows of records and CDs. Posters and tapestries of rock stars surround them. But Gutierrez worries that these moments may be fleeting. Spain’s failure to properly enforce copyright law and go after illegal downloaders has given it a reputation for having one of the worst piracy problems in Europe, according to several reports.

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Customers at Discos la Gramola flip through vinyl and cds, much to the delight of store owner María Gutiérrez. Photo by Gina-Maria Garcia.

“It has affected my CD sales,” said Gutierrez. “I think it hurts this business a lot.”

Spain’s poor record is no secret. It is sparking a debate around the country, largely in academic circles. Pedro Letai, a professor of law at IE University in Segovia who specializes in intellectual property, said he’s surprised that a country such as Spain has been so poor at fighting piracy.

“Normally in the top are countries with lower economic development, so it’s strange that a country from Europe is in it,” he said.

The numbers don’t lie. And they were at the center of a press conference held earlier this month at the Institut Français, the operator of the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs in Madrid, in which panelists advocated for reform of the current intellectual property law. According to the panelists, 84 percent of the cultural content – goods not just limited to music, but extending to films, music, phone applications and books – consumed in Spain is pirated. Similar numbers are echoed in other studies, with economists and intellectual property experts arguing that this number is anywhere from 77 percent to 90 percent illegal.

In fact, this illegal consumption of online goods leads to the loss of more than 16 million euros, or about $21.8 million, in the economy, the experts said.

“It’s unbearable for our society. We need to rebalance the situation and have a legal offer,” said Adriana Moscoso del Prado, director of the Copyright Institute, a Madrid-based organization that works to safeguard copyrights and provide services to the authorial and artistic community, and one of the panelists.

While the panelists lamented the attitude of Spanish consumers – “Young people live in a culture where if you can get something for free, you get it for free,” said Letai – they conceded that these behaviors don’t differ from those in other countries.

It is the lack of enforcement and lax intellectual property laws that allow internet pirates to operate with little fear of prosecution. Compare that to the United States, where courts ordered a former Boston University Ph.D student to play $675,000 for illegally downloading and sharing 30 songs.

“The legislation and the regulation in Spain regarding Internet or online intellectual property infringements is quite weak,” said Letai. “That weak regulation is also leading to a social usage, especially in the new generations and young people, who lose respect of the intellectual reasons that we have to buy music and audiovisual content and that culture.”

As Francesco Sandulli, a professor at Complutense University in Madrid and head of the Internet Business Management Department, explained, the issue of piracy results in content creators receiving lower revenues from IP rights, and the music industry as a whole making a lower profit.

But according the experts, the music industry is something that is always experiencing changes, and producers as well as consumers must innovate with the times. As a result, a variety of sectors in the industry have had to adjust their production systems to fit the tastes of consumers.

“As for the economy, it is true that large scale piracy harms the possibility of starting an artistic career and that many companies have fallen in bankruptcy,” said José Hernández García, an economist, lawyer and lecturer at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. “But we should think about the fact that we are in the very beginning of a new age in which new technologies have changed our lives in a way unthinkable just 20 years ago.”

Further complicating matters, musicians differ on how to deal with Internet piracy. For established artists with record deals, the free and involuntarily distribution of music is clearly a drain. For new and upcoming bands, piracy can be free publicity.

Music listeners jumped around to the beat, enjoying a local rock show inside the small music venue Siroco, located in a hip, artsy section of Madrid. Siroco’s manager, Antonio Villar, also in a band, said the split opinion between musicians is also based on success.

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Antonio Villar sees digital piracy’s impact on the industry as manager of Siroco, a music venue in Madrid, and personally as a musician in his own right. Photo by Carly Metz.

“A lot of artists are not cool with it,” said Villar. “Those artists are normally rich people and just want more money, and now they are making less money than they used to. I have a band, and I always do everything with free stuff.”

The consensus among music listeners seems to be one of agreement – many of them do get music without paying online, and think that musicians earn money through other means, such as concerts and merchandise. However some also brought up streaming as a viable option, something that is both legal and cheap.

“Spotify is the best app they have for listening to music and not paying too much,” said Enrique Barrientos, a music fan and 21-year-old student at Universidad de Comillas in Madrid. He also brought up the point that it can even help artists. “It’s also good for new artists because they can easily promote their new music on the internet on Spotify or YouTube,” said Alvaro Comuñas, another 21-year-old student at the same university.

And this may be the business model of the future – people buying access to a whole library of music, rather than just buying individual albums or songs. Streaming sites such as Pandora have grown more popular over the years, though musicians have complained about the small amount of royalties they receive from the service.

Letai believes Internet pirates don’t understand how much impact they have had and are having. It costs money to make music.

“If you want to record a song, you need money to do that,” he said. “You need to hire musicians. If afterwards everything is going to be for free, its quite uncertain how you would get the money to create a certain product.”

According to experts, laws regarding illegal consumption are currently unclear, which led to the courts not having legal support to arrest or prosecute people. Consequently, the proposed changes would try to fix these gaps.

“It is a bill right now in Congress, and its purpose is to modify the intellectual property law in three aspects,” said del Prado. “One is private copying, one is the control of protective management society and the third one is the fight against piracy.”

Sandulli mentioned that the new bill would supposedly give more support to the courts to condemn illegal consumption, something that is lacking in the current law.

Despite these plans, panelists said that beyond punishing people, what is needed is a basic educational program to explain why illegal downloading isn’t just a way around paying high prices for new albums. Carlota Navarrate, a panelist at the press conference, is director of the Coalition of Creators and Content Industries, an organization that represents much of the cultural and entertainment industry in Spain. She works against the infringement of intellectual property rights on the internet and said that many people do not think they are doing anything wrong by downloading such content.

“We should educate society and young people and tell them if we pay for gasoline, we should do the same with cultural products like movies and songs,” said Fohr.

“It’s a matter of education. People should know that it’s an important thing, and people should value the music they like,” said Cristina Bosoá, a radio DJ at Prisa. “If they don’t pay for the music they like, at the end, it will backfire to them because the artists will not be able to produce more music. It’s more of a matter of education that establishing penalties.”

And when it does come to the prospect of penalizing consumers, experts maintain that it shouldn’t necessarily be the users, but rather people making a profit from the piracy.

“What is important to talk about … is not to punish the people making leisure out of copyright infringements (people who download music for free) but people who are making real money,” said Letai, “people creating the platforms or computer systems or any sites that offer you the possibility to infringe. That’s the thing that should be treated by the law, not the individual.”

Because that’s just it – exchanging music for free isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Smaller bands get attention that they may not have gotten if listeners had to pay.

“What I really want is for you to listen to my music,” said Villar. “ If you want to pay that’s OK, but if you don’t want to pay, and you are listening to my music and have it and come to my concert, then I’m the happiest man in the world.”

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