UK ISP Virgin Media and UMG announce "carrot and stick" music plans

I have a love-hate relationship with my Internet Service Provider (ISP) Virgin Media. I love the fact that they give me a fast and reliable fiber optic broadband connection (no copper running into this house), although I’m less keen on their peak time throttling policy. On the other hand, I hate their cozy relationship with the major records labels over the issue of illegal file sharing, whereby they appear to be more than willing to entertain the idea of disconnecting customers at the labels’ request if it’s claimed they are persistent offenders.

This week, Virgin talked up the latest phase of that cozy relationship, announcing a new unlimited music plan backed by Universal Music Group, and a firm commitment to “educate” file sharers through a temporary suspension of service.

The Carrot

The new service will offer unlimited, DRM-free music downloads, claimed to be a world first. And although pricing hasn’t been revealed, reports suggest the cost will be about the same as two albums per month, which I’d peg at between 10 and 15 pounds. So far only Universal is on-board, unsurprising as they have historically been the most keen on pushing subcription-based services — remember Total Music? — although Virgin is hopeful of the other three major labels and a number of independents signing up in time for the planned Christmas launch.

If the service is truly unlimited and DRM-free, though it’s hard to see how there won’t be some “fair use” restrictions (otherwise, what’s stopping a subscriber downloading all the tracks they want in the first month and then leaving?), then this is a pretty big deal, and marketed right, I can see parents adding the music plan to their already bulging cable bill. Whether or not it will appeal to illegal file sharers directly, however, will depend a lot on price, the size of Virgin’s music catalog, and what, if any, inconvenience if plastered on top. Which brings us to The Sick…

See also: Will 2008 be the year of the music tax?

The Stick

Working with the music industry, Virgin says it will continue to “educate” its customers over the issue of illegal file sharing. Measures will include sending letters out to offenders and “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.” (The Register)

In other words, Virgin will continue to rely on the labels themselves or their third-party agents, to snoop on their customers. That’s a better PR position but in reality is still means the ISP is a willing accomplice. That said, with the UK government threatening to legislate if ISPs and the content industry can’t come to a voluntary agreement to fight piracy, this maybe the best we can hope for.


last100 is edited by Steve O'Hear. Aside from founding last100, Steve is co-founder and CEO of Beepl and a freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications, including TechCrunch, The Guardian, ZDNet, ReadWriteWeb and Macworld, and also wrote and directed the Silicon Valley documentary, In Search of the Valley. See his full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.

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