fruits of Bittorrent
Wednesday, March 31 2010
There was a news item this morning at BoingBoing.com that caught my eye. It was about the "US Copyright Group" a law office based in the Washington, DC area that had found a way to capitalize on all the downloading happening via Bittorrent. They had hired people (or robots) to join Bittorrent swarms, take note of the IP addresses of the swarm members, extract the identities behind those IP addresses from internet providers, and then send letters requesting civil settlements to those people. Up until I'd read this article, I'd assumed that the targets of media companies' legal strategies regarding Bittorrent was to attack the torrent search engines and hosts, not the actual downloaders. I'd assumed that under existing copyright law, a member of a Bittorrent swarm would be within his rights to provide whatever fragment of a copyrighted media file his application copies, since there is a principle under existing law permitting the "excerpting" of copyrighted works. You might argue that Bittorrent exploits this excerpting and allows piracy to flourish through excerpting alone and that it violates the "spirit" of copyright law. To this I argue that there is no spirit in copyright law, given that the same media companies relying in this case on "spirit" are all too happy to rely on the letter of the law when it suits their interest. Is it, after all, the spirit of the law that someone who makes 24 lossy copies of copyrighted songs available for others to download should face a 2 million dollar judgement?
Bittorrent is only the latest generation of peer-to-peer software allowing pirated media to flow freely (in every sense of the word) from supply to demand. Earlier peer-to-peer schemes included (which had a centralized index that was easy for media companies to shut down) to Kazaa/Gnutella (which had a dencentralized index but which was fairly easy to pollute with junk content and various forms of spam). The problem faced by media companies regarding Bittorrent is that the indexes are harder to attack (they can move to Russia or the Bahamas) and the content is harder to pollute (since junked-up content doesn't end up being as frequently shared out or as easy to find the way good content does). Then there's the question mentioned previously of whether or not being a member of a Bittorrent swarm engaged in sharing copyrighted material is legal. But if your goal is, as the US Copyright Group has stated, to find a new revenue model through civil settlements, then it doesn't really matter what your legal standing is. You send out the scary letters and hope people send you money. So far the US Copyright Group is targeting the sharers of critically-snubbed independent movies (perhaps including pornography), though if this proves lucrative and doesn't result in excessively-bad publicity, larger movie studios could follow suit.
This is similar to the way large retailers handle the few shoplifters they manage to catch. If, for example, you shoplift from Lowes or Hannaford and are caught, you will be taken into a small dreary office and your personal information will be politely gathered. Some days later you will receive a letter from a scary-sounding legal firm requesting that you pay an additional civil penalty (this is in addition to any criminal penalties you may face). If you ignore this letter, you will receive a second letter asking for twice the original proposed settlement. Eventually they might even start calling and leaving automated messages at all hours. But if you don't respond, they eventually go away. You can even call them and tell them to unlist your number (because sometimes criminals give intentionally bogus numbers during the course of dreary-room data collection).
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