Published in The Music Network
John Giacobbi is a gunslinger of a different kind. Through his company Web Sheriff, the intellectual property lawyer polices the Wild West that is the Internet. Back in 2007, the London-based firm earned a tough-guy reputation when Prince hired it to wipe the Internet of his content.
These days, Giacobbi’s digital rights management and brand protection business has a more fan-friendly stance. His so-called “velvet glove” approach has netted him work across some of the world’s biggest album campaigns, including Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, Adele’s 21 and Taylor Swift’s Speak Now, and he counts Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and Bryan Adams among his clients.
Are you the good cop or bad cop?
I’d like to think we’re the good cop. At least in recent years, a lot of fans would agree with that. We treat [pirates] as fans, not criminals. We treat them with the respect they’re due.
You landed some notoriety with Prince in 2007.
That was a turning point. Things have very much evolved from that. All we can do is give our clients advice, and it’s not to say they always take it (laughs). In that instance, there was a harder line taken. Behind the scenes, we were the ones getting the bullet. That was an educational process in itself.
How is your company evolving?
Historically, rights societies like RIAA and MPAA have taken a much more aggressive approach to fans and file-sharers. And it’s backfired. When you look back to the early days of the Internet, there wasn’t any legal alternative because the record companies in particular were very slow to change gear. There was a demand for MP3s which wasn’t being serviced. We try to work closely not just with the labels, but with the artist management and the artist themselves. If there’s a new album coming out, we’ve got to persuade the management to let us give a couple of tracks to the fans early. Not just pre-release, but pre-leak. It forms a useful dual-function. It promotes the album, because you’re giving material up-front to fans and asking them to be a part of the pre-release marketing of the record. When the album does leak, rather than say, “take it down or we’ll sue you,” we actually post on blogs and say, “we know you’re a big fan but if you take it down, here’s two tracks you can have.” So it turns the perceived negative associated with anti-piracy and replaces it with a much more positive viral marketing message.
With Gaga, because she has such a monumental online fanbase, we worked hand-in-hand with a lot of major fansites to do co- ordinate pre-release marketing and promotions. We set-up an “honesty box,” so when the album leaked there was a website where people could report pirate files. We got tens of thousands of emails from fans around the world helping out. Most of our work – 90% of it – is in the United States. So we’ll be opening an office there later in the year.
Surely album leaks can be a good thing?
Very much so. It depends how you approach it. With new bands, young indie bands, the more Internet exposure they get the better. Even with bigger artists, if an album leaks, if one can channel it in a positive direction, you can actually get fans to promote it. If the fans want to share in the privacy of their living home or on their iPad, then that’s absolutely fine. They’re going to buy it anyway. It’s when you have mass uploading of pirated material that it becomes a big issue. We try to rationalise rather than threaten.
A raft of subscriptions services are arriving in Australia. Could they start dampening piracy’s impact?
I’m sure they will, and they are. Piracy became big because the record industry wasn’t serving its own market. For someone who’s been in the record industry for over 20 years, it’s an embarrassment that it took an American computer company, Apple, to create the world’s best digital platform. With the proliferation of platforms and streaming services, there’s more reason for there not to be piracy. Spotify is a great concept, but its business-model is yet to stack up. To make that sustainable in the long-term, the model will need to be improved whether it’s through advertising or other means.
Fast forward, I see the entertainment industry going with a free-point of access. You’ll see coalitions with the likes of ARIA and the major telephone companies and ISPs. The technology exists to uniquely watermark all content and recognise who’s accessing it. In ten years, maybe, you’ll access it all free and pay for it in your phone bill.
Who should step up in the piracy fight? Government or ISPs?
Both. The ISPs should really be stepping-up. They’re a multi-billion dollar a year business and they get all the benefits without any of the responsibilities. The governments need to step-in and compel ISPs to audit sites they’re paid to host on a routine and regular basis. Regulation has a big role to play.