U2 manager, Paul McGuinness gave a speech recently in Cannes where he bemoaned the collapse of the recorded music industry caused by file-sharing “thiefs” with “hippy values” – their fans that share music illegally online. This is the record industry that he himself blames for destroying a “long, humiliating list of miserable artists, who made lousy deals, got exploited and ended up broke and with no control over how their life’s work was used, and no say in how their names and likenesses were bought and sold.”

Having followed the activities, over the weekend, of numerous U2 fans trying (and ultimately failing thanks to copyright infringement notices being served directly by the band) to share the band’s new video online, I’m curious as to the fine point of the legality of sharing content online.

The tools available online today mean that everyone is potentially a creator and disseminator of content. By content I mean text, photos, videos, audio and even applications. One of the great benefits for original creators of content is that very quickly your content can go viral and, presuming that you have a monetisation strategy around this, you can very quickly turn viral into a tangible return.

The general rule of thumb for individuals seeking to share content seems to be that you can do it so long as you clearly identify and credit the original creator. YouTube actively allows sharing. It gives you the tools to embed a video on your own blog or social network site. Facebook, Bebo and the other social network sites allow you to pull videos and music files onto your profile to share with your friends.

So what went wrong with the U2 release this weekend? Well it appears that someone got their hands on a pre-release version of a single from the new album. They uploaded this onto the web. They didn’t take credit for the creation of the content, but the nub of the issue was that the original creator hadn’t made the content available themselves.

The Copyright Association of Ireland help to bring focus to the legal point:

Copyright gives the creator the right to prevent others from exploiting the work in various ways, without permission. The form of restricted exploitation include: copying the work; making the work available to the public; distributing the work; renting or lending it (excluding public lending); and translating, arranging or adapting the work. It is these restrictions which enable the creator to charge a fee, or royalty for the reproduction of the work.

So while a creator of content might turn a blind eye to the sharing of content by others and in some cases may actually encourage it, they always retain the right to stop you doing it, especially if there are grounds for them to argue that you are reducing their earning potential. This is fair of course, even if it may seem mean-spirited.

The challenge of course for creators is to understand how to monetise works that are shared by others. The protectionist view is that if someone can view a piece of content for free online then they will not pay for it. An alternative view is that by allowing a piece of content to be shared you generate more interest in your product, wider audience and greater demand for the product in a traditional format or in other formats; downloads, merchandise, gigs etc. As McGuinness confirms, fans are consuming more music today than ever before and are attending more gigs in greater numbers. The Vertigo Tour in 2005/2006 grossed $355m and played to 4.6m people in 26 countries. The Internet has played no small part in this but this is not being acknowledged.

It would appear that the protectionist view dominates and has created an industry for the copyright police. Investing some of that time and energy into developing some new thinking might be money better spent in the long run. So let’s stop trying to preserve an industry that serves only itself and work on solutions that harness the new social web; generating some real and proportionate return for the content creators who for too long have been exploited by that industry.