Media piracy: You’re not as anonymous as you might think

Enforcing statutory penalties on intellectual property infringements in the media industry is moving up a notch. In the US, a federal judge recently agreed to allow the US Copyright Group to force internet service providers (ISPs) to hand over the identities of at least 23 000 users who had sourced bootlegged copies of The Expendables via BitTorrent clients and file sharing.

There’s of course no reason to target illicit downloads of The Expendables specifically, so the case seems more about making a statement against intellectual property theft than anything else. But film studios aren’t quite so noble as to make waves in the industry for nothing: there’s money to be made here — potentially lots of it. By suing thousands of defendants simultaneously, studios have sublimated the generation of revenue into class-action litigations. In other words, the courts can be big business.

Earlier this year, Camelot Distribution Group launched a case against the 5 865 BitTorrent downloaders who pirated the 2010 low-budget porn film Nude Nuns with Big Guns, amounting to, in theory, a case worth close to US$9-million. Defendants are arguing that these kinds of cases are starting to set a worrying pattern – what attorney Lory Lybeck, speaking to, has called a “mass copyright litigation machine.”

What film companies will typically do is hire third-party companies to travel along the BitTorrent highways and capture the IP addresses of users transferring large quantities of illegal data. These companies then generate a massive spreadsheet of IP codes. If a court grants them access to the usernames associated with these codes, ISP’s will be obligated to furnish them with customer details.

In most cases, users will receive an immediate settlement offer. Particularly when it comes to illegal pornographic material, users seem more likely to settle as quickly and confidentially as possible rather than have their name publically associated with black-market erotica. While South African law imposes fines of between R5 000 and R10 000 for each case of copyright infringement , the US Copyright Act imposes a file sharer with a dearer maximum US$150 000 (that’s well over a hundred times as much). Settlements figures, by contrast, tend to start at a more affordable US$3000.

Film companies will argue that they’re merely seeking compensation for the millions lost in annual revenue due to industry piracy, while BitTorrent users have tended to show a fairly recalcitrant attitude at attempts to control what many believe should be openly shareable content. But even then, the whole exercise is more often about “what can I get away with sans consequences” than “what values should the industry as a whole subscribe to”. Lawsuits shouldn’t become opportunities for big business, but as the film and media industry fights back, consumers would do well to tread more cautiously online.



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