Pete Wishart: We must silence web trade in 'free' goods to protect our artists

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IMAGINE a perfect Saturday afternoon shopping trip. You've had a fantastic fix of retail therapy and you can't wait to get home to try out all your new goods.

Then you come across your local music store and you can't believe what you see: outside there's a sign saying "for an unlimited period only – everything inside is free!"

With no-one to hold you back, you immediately help yourself to this week's top ten, the new Tarantino film and the latest computer game. As you leave, the assistant calls: "Come back anytime, we're open all hours!"

Of course, this is absurd, but it is exactly what happens online, every second of every day. Music and other digital products are simply offered to a public grateful not to have to pay a penny. No-one refers to it as "giving goods away" – that would be too crude – instead it is "sharing" or "peer-to-peer filesharing" to give its proper title.

Music led the file sharing revolution and, where music gently tread, the rest of the creative industries came galloping in. Now films, computer games, books and football highlights can all now be given away for nothing.

Platinum selling artists Radiohead and Pink Floyd have said they are happy to see their music used as a sort of digital loss leader to sell other products, but these groups are the exception rather than the rule. The average musician earns less than 15,000 a year and losing royalties makes the day-to-day struggle even harder for them. The loss of royalties has become such a problem that many artists, such as Mercury Prize winning Speech Debelle, must ask themselves what is the point of creating anything if no-one is paying for it?

If we are serious about developing our creative industries, then we must respect intellectual property and copyright. Forthcoming in the next Westminster Parliament is the Digital Economy Bill – a piece of legislation that will create a regulatory framework to combat illegal file sharing and other forms of online copyright infringement.

The UK government is right to pursue it vigorously. If we are to lead in the world, then we cannot allow our artists and creators to work for nothing.

"Won't you just criminalise some seven million kids who are doing nothing wrong?" comes the knee-jerk response. No. These "kids" (or rather the internet account holder) will simply get a letter informing them that what they are doing is wrong.

That letter will spell out the damage that illegal file sharing does and politely ask that they stop taking music for nothing. If it is ignored, then they will get another.

Of course, most will stop at this point, but those who continue to abuse the property of others will face sanctions such as temporarily suspending internet connection. What could be wrong with that?

The music industry is an easy hit. It is renowned for its excesses and its contractual shortcomings, but somehow it has conspired to give the UK the second-largest share of a valuable world market, bringing millions of pounds to the UK economy and producing some of the greatest talents the world has known along the way.

Yes, the music industry is in dire need of reform, but the need to protect and develop our creative industries is more important than one sector's business model.

We need serious debate about how our artists are protected and how our creative industries are developed, but the solution does not lie in giving products away for nothing. We can be the best, but only if our artists are rewarded for the work that they produce.

&#149 Pete Wishart is SNP MP for Perth and North Perthshire and a former member of Runrig