Caught in the net

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THE NEXT TIME YOU UNHOLSTER your phone at a concert with the intention of filming and posting the results on YouTube, watch out for the Web Sheriff. In the lawless Wild West that is the internet, a London-based company is dispensing justice on behalf of some of the world's biggest stars – and quickest on the draw is John Giacobbi, an ex-music industry lawyer who is employed by musicians to purge the internet of leaked and copyrighted material.

Van Morrison is gearing up to play his classic album, Astral Weeks, at London's Albert Hall next week but you'll struggle to find more than a handful of official clips of the man on YouTube. That's the work of the Web Sheriff.

Prince, who gained valuable publicity during his 21 shows at the O2 Arena in 2007, promptly lost much of that goodwill by using Web Sheriff to rid the internet of more than 1,000 audience-filmed clips of his set. Now fans are required to pay a $77 annual subscription to access official Prince material at his newly launched and reportedly disappointing site

Although we have become used to the biggest acts being the most litigious, younger bands who might be expected to be better friends with the web have also allied with the Sheriff. Franz Ferdinand, Animal Collective and even Arctic Monkeys, who found fame when fans started sharing their demos online, have all used him to safeguard new material.

Giacobbi's techniques aren't brutal. "We try to use a tempered approach," he says. He wants to be your friend. A Web Sheriff-produced video on The Prodigy's YouTube channel tells fans what's "cool" and what's "uncool" to post. Music blogging sites are littered with comments with the Sheriff's contact details at the top, thanking bloggers for obeying the rules.

The fans don't always react well to these pats on the back, believing them to be a chummy way of saying, "I've got my eye on you".

Getting on his bad side is no fun, as blogger Edward Droste revealed when he published the letter he received after sharing what he thought was a freely available Animal Collective track: "This is no laughing matter and should you refuse or otherwise fail to comply with the above request (to remove the shared track from his blog and publish an apology], we would ask you to provide us with the details of the US attorneys, UK solicitors, French and German advocates whom you would instruct in relation to the service of such proceedings as shall ensue."

We're all aware of the damage internet file sharing is doing to album sales. But the music industry's problem is its inability to distinguish between cynical heavyweight pirates and individuals who simply want to enthuse publicly about their favourite band.

But if the Web Sheriff can rid the world of one thing – people holding their phones aloft at gigs so that no one behind them can see – we'll all have a reason to thank him.