Forbidden Fruit

It's the world's largest music and movies superstore, and everything in it is free—and illegal. Every month, some five billion illegal downloads are passed around the internet, and the entertainment industry sues several hundred people. CP writer St

When it comes to shutting down offending sites, the past year has been busy for both the MPAA and RIAA. The record industry won decisions in Australian courts that shut down the giant music-trading services Kazaa and Grokster. The movie industry notched its greatest victory to date by getting local authorities to shut down Razorback, the massive, Belgium-based indexing server that was crucial to the operation of eDonkey 2000, a multimedia file-sharing technology/community whose users numbered in the millions.

While the RIAA may be several thousand personal lawsuits up on the MPAA—the movie business was late getting in the cyber-piracy game, largely because it has much more physical piracy to deal with, especially in Asia—the MPAA boasts a 2-0 lead in putting file-sharers in prison. And if the uploader who shared the advance screener of I Walk the Line is convicted, he'll be the third. Hard time for such offenses is a new wrinkle in the law, courtesy of the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act of 2005. FECA singles out the uploading of not-yet-released movies for special fines and even prison time.

None of the foregoing means that the copyright police are having an entirely easy time of it, however. While U.S. officials, the MPAA, and the RIAA have won legal cooperation from a growing number of countries, they continue to face resistance in many more. Some, like Russia or many of the Asian nations, have thriving black markets for virtually all things Western that spill onto websites hosted in those countries. Other governments are exploring legal means of giving U.S. copyright laws the finger. France, for one, has debated making file-sharing for personal use completely legal, in exchange for a monthly internet- use fee to compensate all artists. The war on international piracy in the age of the internet can win only partial victories anyway. As long as there are blocs of nations that possess electricity but lack reciprocal trade and copyright agreements with the U.S., there will be safe havens for web-based piracy.

Lately the entertainment industries have heard troubling noises from the U.S. court system, too. Until recently, the litigation filed against consumers by the RIAA has had the practical force of an administrative fine. Hardly anyone fought the lawsuits in court, that is; they just got told what it was going to cost them to settle. But in one 2006 case, the RIAA abruptly withdrew its suit against an Oklahoma woman named Debbie Foster after her attorney moved to have the case thrown out for lack of evidence. The judge subsequently ordered the RIAA to pay Foster's legal costs. More recently, news media and blogs have highlighted the case of Shawn Hogan, a software developer sued by the MPAA for allegedly downloading an illegal copy of Meet the Fockers. Hogan has denied it, claiming he actually owns a legit copy of the DVD, but more than that he seems to be itching for a fight with the MPAA in open court. Reputedly a millionaire, Hogan, the CEO of Digital Point Solutions, Inc. has said that he expects to amass six-figure legal bills, but no matter. Hogan told one interviewer his plan was to "try and force [the MPAA] to go to a full trial. Basically, my lawyers aren't even going to file a motion to dismiss.... If they drop [the suit], I will find something to counter with to keep it in court.

"It will set a precedent for everyone else, that's the whole point. Between the RIAA and the MPAA, it's almost 20,000 people that have settled. All John Doe lawsuits, not a single one has gone to a final judgment. All these people settling for basically what adds up to extortion, I want to put a stop to it. At this point, I don't care what it costs."

The American entertainment industry's legal barrage on file-sharing has busted up huge trading rings, shut down servers containing countless gigabytes of illicit downloads, and likely dissuaded a few souls from ever learning how to do the rotten deed. But the offensive has had plenty of unintended consequences, too. For one, each turn of the legal screw has tended to hasten the decentralization of the file-sharing scene. There are now thousands and thousands of downloading "communities," and many are actively adapting to the new legal pressures by experimenting with various means, tactical and technological, for staying off the radar of law enforcement. Beneath the RIAA and MPAA's workaday successes, in other words, the legal heat directed at file-sharing has touched off a classic market-style competition among downloaders to build a better stealth cloak.

You can see the change-or-get-caught evolutionary pressures most clearly in the proliferation of file-sharing systems. Once everybody used Napster, but within just the past couple of years, systems widely in use for downloading have included Direct Connect, a mostly private trading community; eDonkey, a finicky but nearly unlimited resource for all kinds of media files, which are downloaded in small pieces from multiple users; Internet Relay Chat (IRC), a giant forum-and-chatroom network that is also fertile ground for movie and CD trading; the venerable old Usenet-style newsgroups, which saw a surge in downloading volume after someone invented a search tool called newzbin that could scour their contents on demand; and BitTorrent, the most popular of the post-Napster file-sharing systems and, for now, the closest thing to a downloader's lingua franca. (In geekier terms, BitTorrent's appeal stems from combining the deep search function of a centralized system like Napster with the kind of faster downloads and user anonymity associated with peer-to-peer networks, in which users connect to each other without leaving system-wide traces.)

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