Wednesday, February 14, 2007

How would you spend five million quid to improve life in Britain?

Perhaps you'd spend it to plug the gap in thoracic nurses in London, say, or give it to help prop up a failing school. It could be used to convert a few public buildings to sustainable energy, or provide free transport for kids in Somerset or something useful.

The DTI, meanwhile, has spent it providing an extra 4,500 trading standards copyright enforcement officers. They're charged with going round looking into people selling pirated CDs, videos, and games.

This, Trade and Industry Minister Malcolm Wicks believes, is money well spent:

"The UK film, music and game industries are among the most creative and innovative in the world, but peddlers of counterfeits are costing those industries up to £9 billion a year. The taxpayer is also losing out to the tune of £300 million. It's a serious offence, whether committed by small-scale hawkers or international crime organisations."

So, we - the taxpayers - are paying five million to target a loss to us of just £300 million. Is this really such a good deal? That £300 million in "losses" is based on the amount of VAT which would have been paid had the goods been legitimate and purchased over a counter.

But this five million in spends isn't going to bring £300 million back into the exchequer, simply because even if it wipes out all illegal sales (which, of course, it won't - 450 people couldn't manage to police all the car boot sales in the country, to say nothing of street markets, odd little shops, people flogging dodgy CDs in pubs, the bloke that hangs about the council offices offering round a list of albums he'll burn for a fiver...) then a large number of people who are happy to spend a couple of quid on a CD-R of a record aren't going to suddenly decide to nip down to Virgin and spend a tenner instead; they'll probably just buy an extra pint of beer.

There is, of course, the usual justification that what might seem like a bloke you recognise from the allotments flogging fake Lily Allen albums could well be the pinnacle of a multinational crime syndicate:
Ron Gainsford, Chief Executive of the Trading Standards Institute, said:
"Crimelords currently earn fortunes peddling fake goods, bootleg CDs and DVDs through car boot sales and other outlets. People might think they are getting a bargain and turn a blind eye to what is really happening but they should realise that the proceeds from the sale of these goods are used to finance a whole range of criminal activities."

But if this is the case, why not arrest the crimelords for the drug-and-gun running they're apparently using car boot sales to launder for? We know that accountants love to point out that Al Capone was done for tax fraud and not murder, but are we really in such a potmess that the response to a bloke selling guns and laundering the cash through a boot sale is to, erm, focus on the boot sale?

If it's a nine billion pound industry, as the DTI claims, isn't it possible that people might be in it for the cash from the piracy itself rather than to fund other criminal activities?

And we've not seen much in the way of evidence that British gangsters are sitting around burning CDs of BBC Sporting Themes to make sure they can buy new uzis.

There's a few cases of a small amount of class As turning up alongside the copying equipment - but that hardly proves a major link between major criminals and the average pirate CD seller. There's been one case where a guy had an air gun. But even when the DVD industry tries to prove some solid link, they really can't come up with much worse than "people who sell counterfeit DVDs break the law by selling counterfeit DVDs." Of course, the law is the law is the law, but if we've got five million quid to spare on law enforcement, wouldn't it be better to spend it trying to break the rings of people trafficers who are forcing women into prositution, or major drug dealers, rather than trying to shore up record company profits? I can't think of anyone out of upper management at a record label who has been clamouring for nearly five hundred copyright cops to be brought onto the streets.