Home > Uncategorized > The Entertainment Industry and Copyright Violation Crackdowns: How Much Is Too Much?*

The Entertainment Industry and Copyright Violation Crackdowns: How Much Is Too Much?*

A recent news item described a store about Virgin Media sending warning letters to roughly 800 of its customers, cautioning them to avoid downloading illegally copied materials. Virgin Media’s effort is in connection with the British Phonographic Industry’s (BPI’s) campaign to identity illegal file sharers and then report them to Virgin Media, which has agreed to send out warning letters such as the ones it recently sent.

I am very sympathetic with the current plight of both the recording and movie industries, both of which lose huge amounts of money due to piracy. Despite legislation designed to protect both of these industries by punishing individuals who illegally copy and share music and movies, the situation has, if anything, gotten worse. It is easy, therefore, to understand the desperation of the BPI, Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and Motion Picture Industry Association (MPIA).

Crackdowns of any nature invariably have unjust fallout, and the crackdowns by the music and motion picture associations have been no exception. Numerous individuals have ostensibly been unjustly charged with illegal file sharing. Additionally, some crackdown efforts have proved to be excessive and draconian. You may recall the case of 12-year-old Brianna LaHara, a New York honor student whom the RIAA sued for illegal music downloading five years ago. Bianna’s mother had paid a $29.99 fee to KaZaA for a music service that she thought would allow downloading music at will. Bianna faced a potential fine of $150,000 per illegally downloaded file, but after the tide of public opinion turned overwhelmingly against the RIAA, the RIAA reached a settlement with Brianna in which she had to pay only $2,000.

What bothers me most about the efforts of the music and movie industries, however, is how flimsy the evidence of illegal content downloading that they too often obtain is, but then they blow that evidence up to the point that they accuse those they have identified of major copyright statute infringements. A good example occurred when I was at the Berkeley Lab not all too many years ago. A HoneyNet in which most ports of the virtual servers therein appeared to be open and listening had been set up for research purposes. Some of these ports are commonly used by peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing programs such as KaZaA, Gnutella and eDonkey. Sure enough–not too long after the HoneyNet was put in place, the RIAA sent Lab management a threatening letter instructing it to cease and desist in allowing illegal file sharing activity there. Lab management sent a reply explaining that there was no illegal file sharing activity, but instead that a HoneyNet used to study attacks gave the appearance that the ports in question were open. Not long afterwards the RIAA showed that it had not read the letter, did not understand, or did not care (or possibly all three) by sending a second, even more threatening letter. Clearly, clowns rule the circus when it comes to at least some of the RIAA’s witch hunts.

What happened at Berkeley Lab was by no means an isolated incident. The BitTorrent file sharing protocol is widely used for completely legitimate purposes, such as downloading patches for Linux systems. Despite this, the RIAA and MPIA have threatened to sue many hundreds of users who have utilized this protocol legitimately. Additionally, the RIAA and MPIA sometimes act on completely ludicrous false alarms without even investigating whether they were even marginally legitimate. In some cases, for example, these associations have threatened to sue individuals who have remotely accessed printers, or who have accessed wireless access points.

History has so many times taught us that it is possible to take up a just cause, but fight the battle in a manner that guarantees defeat. I fear that unless the entertainment industry makes radical changes in its crackdown strategy, defeat will be the inevitable outcome.

*Some of the ideas in this blog entry were inspired by a message sent by Gal Shpantzer

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