Coming Soon: A Softer Approach to Online Piracy

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The entertainment industry’s ongoing battle with digital pirates (also known as average Americans) will enter a new chapter this fall as music and movie companies take a more sweeping–but less litigious–approach to dealing with widespread copyright infringement.

The recently formed Center for Copyright Information is a collaboration between the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America and five of America’s biggest Internet service providers: AT&T, Cablevision, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Verizon. The organization hopes to systemize the way in which digital copyright infringement is handled, which has been fairly scattershot over the last ten years.

Here’s how the new system works: An Internet user downloading media illegally gets flagged by the copyright holder (a record label or movie studio). The copyright holder doesn’t know who you are, but they can detect your IP address if you’re on an open file-sharing network. They tell your Internet service provider that they’ve noticed some questionable activity coming from your address. The ISP will email you a copyright alert, which informs you that your account has been used for illegal file-sharing and directs you to legal avenues to acquire movies or music.

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“It’s sort of a new model of cooperation enabling the movie and music companies to be able to identify allegedly infringed files and pass those notices on to subscribers to their ISPs,” said Jill Lesser, the executive director of the Center. “If it works right, it’s not going to be seen as punitive but as helpful.”

The alert system has been colloquially dubbed the “six-strikes rule.” On the first two strikes, you’ll receive a warning email noting illegal activity. For strikes three and four, you’ll be required to confirm your receipt of the notice through a landing page or pop-up window.

Get a fifth strike and harsher consequences, called mitigation measures, kick in. The ISP may reduce your Internet connection speed for a couple of days, make you watch an educational video or force you to call their office to explain yourself. However, specific actions taken are left at the discretion of the individual ISP. Once you’ve run out of strikes, you’re no longer in CCI’s system and are at the mercy of the content providers, who have been known to sue pirates in the past.

At no point under this system will a user’s Internet get totally cut off, and access to key services such as email will not be hampered. If you’re getting copyright alerts but haven’t been downloading illegally, an independent board will review your claim–for a $35 filing fee (the fee is refunded if you’re in the right).

The CCI program will mark the first time that the ISPs have worked in lockstep to address copyright infringement. Lesser said the increased coordination would probably lead to more users getting flagged for copyright infringement and more alerts being sent out.

Still, the measures are actually tame by anti-piracy standards.  In France, a strict three-strike rule means you get booted from the Internet for as long as a year if caught sharing illegal files three times. In the United States, past tactics have included lawsuits that value a single pirated song at $65,000 and song encryptions that deter music fans from sharing their libraries. Earlier this year Congress considered the sweeping Stop Online Piracy Act, but the bill was tabled after drawing the ire of most of the Internet.

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“We’re moving away from simply rapping people on the hands to try to giving them the info they need to get to various kinds of media content in a way that is both legal, accessible, and cost-effective,” Lesser said.

E. Michael Harrington, a music business professor and member of the Future of Music Coalition Advisory Board, said the new initiative seemed too similar to past approaches to piracy to make a significant difference.

“When you try education, that can be a complicated subject,” Harrington said. “You’d have to try to educate someone on every aspect of copyright. I think it’s just late. People can get music any way they want…Those who want to be clever can stay clever.”

Digital piracy is already on the decline in the United States, with the percent of U.S. Internet users using peer-to-peer networks to download music declining from 16% in 2007 to 9% in 2010, according to the NPD Group. But it’s unclear whether that’s because of legal actions by the RIAA (such as getting popular peer-to-peer network LimeWwire shut down in 2010) or the increased ease of acquiring music digitally. iTunes has been the biggest American music retailer since 2008, and subscription services like Rhapsody and Spotify are finally gaining traction with the general public.

“We need to have access to eveything, everywhere, at any time and in any format,” Harrington said. “[Record labels] just have to get more creative and offer things to people the way they want them at reasonable prices. That’s actually a really old-fashioned idea.”

The piracy debate gained new life last week, when a 20-year-old NPR intern admitted that she’d only bought 15 CDs in her life, though she owned 11,000 songs. She drew the outrage of an older generation who questioned the moral sensibilities of her and other young people who acquire digital music illegally.

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Harrington, who has purchased music for decades and continues to do so, did not see a problem with the intern’s actions. “I don’t think it’s immoral,” he said. “It’s practical. It’s evolution. The way computers are set up is to copy. The computer does this perfectly, quickly and conveniently. Why isn’t it legal if it’s built to do this? It’d be like having an incredibly fast car but you refuse to go above 22 miles per hour in it.”

As the CCI demonstrates, though, record labels and movie companies aren’t willing to completely surrender to pirates. Lesser said the main goal of the CCI is to educate consumers in a positive way. “The idea is to put together a system that has all the elements to help consumers do what they need to do to change behavior,” she said. “There is a perception, particulary on the music side, that music is free or should be free. Part of that central understanding needs to be changed. I think it’s important for people to understand why content isn’t always free.”

For the moment, music and film companies seem content to slice it both ways–encouraging more legal, digital options to access media while reminding those that download media illegally that they are doing something wrong.

“Those twin goals of crafting and understanding of the value and creating an understanding of what’s out there is where we are right now,” Lesser said.

Harrington said the CCI’s softer approach was an improvement over past tactics. “They’re not saying illegal as much. The tag has gotten a little better.”

It’s unclear whether educational emails and reduced Internet speeds will get people to stop downloading music for free (or cruelly depriving artists of their money, depending on your perspective). But it’s a big improvement over suing deceased grandmothers for digital piracy. The media landscape is ever-changing, and the companies that once controlled it are learning–slowly–to adapt.