There's nothing like the issue of music piracy to stir up debate.



Take the Recording Industry Association former chief executive Terence O'Neill-Joyce's claim this week that up to half the estimated 20 million blank CDs that entered the country last year could have been used for illegally pirated music.



I have to agree with Bruce Simpson who follows the piracy debate closely at www.aardvark.co.nz - where's the proof for that estimate?



Who's to say people aren't simply backing up their computer hard drives?

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O'Neill-Joyce is looking to head an anti-piracy unit working on behalf of RIANZ, the Australasian Mechanical Copyright Owners Society and the Australasian Performing Rights Association.



The new body seems focused on cracking down on pirates mass-producing cut-price CDs to sell on the black market.



That's definitely a trade that has to be stamped out. But as more people get high-speed internet connections, the real threat to the music industry is from the alienated music buyer browsing illegal download sites, not shady merchants selling knock-off CDs. And further enforcement is not the right response to that threat.



I remember sitting in O'Neill-Joyce's office, which looked like a recording booth, as he told me how he travelled around the country hunting down those dodgy CD pirates in conjunction with the police.



He certainly considered it an important part of his job at RIANZ and thought his quest noble.



But he always seemed to me to be unrealistic, hell-bent on policing the industry rather than finding a way for the industry to slip gracefully into the digital age. Even on the issue of format-shifting, the music industry represented by RIANZ has traditionally been unbending. They don't want you to transfer the contents of the CD you've bought to your PC or portable music device. Give us an inch and they see us fleecing them.



That attitude obviously doesn't work: the downloading continues.



Where's the industry body with the aim of getting online music downloads licensed across all record labels and their artists? Where's the lobby group hounding computer maker Apple and the record labels to bring www.itunes.com to New Zealand?



If the music industry wants to stem the loss of royalties to piracy, it needs to make it a no-brainer to stump up $1 to $2 a track on a website rather than visit LimeWire or one of the surviving Bittorrent websites to get the same thing for free.



Make it as easy as topping up the balance on your pre-paid mobile phone or placing a bid on TradeMe.



At the moment it is easier to break the law than to pay for some digital content.



Technically, it wouldn't take much - just a New Zealand section of the popular www.itunes.com website with pricing in New Zealand dollars and some promotional material aimed at New Zealanders. That's all we want.



The site should have been up at least a year ago. Meanwhile, people have downloaded 300 million songs through iTunes and it's become the biggest music download site in the world.



The website www.itunes.co.nz is currently registered to Dunedin-based Dave Gee Online and, when accessed, redirects you to www.emp3s.com, a foreign music download site.



Meanwhile, you head for the high street retailers, grumble about the price of a new-release album and grow resentful as you listen to your mates tell you how they scored copies of the album for free.



There are, however, a handful of local sites doing their best to offer legitimate download services within the confines of the music industry's rigid licensing rules.



One of the bigger sites is www.digirama.co.nz, which offers tracks from many artists at $1.99 each and whole albums from $17.99.



The only Queen tracks you'll get on Digirama are from Queen Adreena, whose album Taxidermy is on sale.



Sorry, no Freddie Mercury. If you're into classic rock you can download the Best of Van Halen and some Led Zeppelin tunes, but no Genesis or Pink Floyd. You'll run into the same problem in any other music category.



The selection is spotty and therefore the site is currently of limited use.



Digirama has embedded its own digital rights management system, which seems reasonable enough. In general you'll be able to burn three copies of the song you download and transfer it to an mp3 player three times.



But don't bother emailing your tunes to a friend. You can transfer songs to portable music players but there's no smooth interface to get your tracks on to an iPod, the king of music players. You have to burn tracks to CD, import them into iTunes and then transfer them to your iPod.



The site www.amplifier.co.nz is packed with New Zealand music downloadable at $1.99 a song. It's a well-made site and its devotion to New Zealand music is commendable.



Tmet.net is a good New Zealand-based download site for indie-label dance music tracks.



But none of them have the power of iTunes, which has one million tracks available. The sooner that service, or even the legitimised Napster.com, start serving this market, the sooner the music industry starts recouping some of that cash lost forever to piracy.