Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Anti-piracy efforts ignore realities of technology

January 28, 2012

There are times I have to go looking for a column topic, and there are times a topic stalks into my office and does an “Occupy the Desk” until I write about it.

On Jan. 19, the federal government seized and shut down Megaupload, an offshore-based “cyberlocker” site run by the flamboyant Kimball Schmitz. More precisely, the government got the New Zealand government to actually seize Schmitz and his fellow corporate officers. The U.S. indictment against them claims that Megaupload, far from being a simple cyberlocker where users can stash files that are too big to attach to e-mails, was actually a hotbed of pirated works. It might be both.

Entertainment-industry trade groups cheered, as you might imagine. They have been working for years to curb what they see as blatant and extremely widespread piracy of works whose profits rightfully belong to artists and studios. Groups more closely tied to the Internet rose up in protest, again rather predictably. They maintain that Megaupload did host pirated copies, but that Megaupload didn’t know about it and, in accordance with the law, took down copies that were flagged as infringements.

Some took their protests to the extreme. The group known throughout the Internet as “Anonymous” promptly attacked the websites owned by the U.S. Department of Justice, Universal Music Group, the Recording Industry Association of America, the Motion Picture Association of America, Broadcast Music Inc. and the FBI.

The arrests and publicity are more symbolic than real. Piracy is undoubtedly a problem, but how big a problem is the subject of massive dispute, and how to prevent it is even more acrimonious. There just doesn’t seem to be a way to stamp it out that doesn’t turn the Internet into a police state.

At one time, the entertainment and software industries claimed piracy cost Americans 750,000 jobs and $250 billion a year, figures that were so inflated it’s amazing anyone paid serious attention to them.

More sober studies by the government and others have concluded that, while these figures are undoubtedly moonshine, it’s also just not possible to properly quantify the losses. One fact is certain, however: The losses from overseas copying and resale in the black market dwarf the losses from people who simply share music or recorded TV shows. Asian markets are filled with bootleg copies of every major movie that often appear on the street before the official DVD is released.

Industry groups continue to probe for ways to curtail piracy wherever they can. One group, for example, is famous for having sued online users of music sharing networks for millions of dollars, often embarrassing themselves in the process. As many bloggers have said, a business model where you sue your customers for sharing your product isn’t one that inspires confidence.

Coming close in time to the Megaupload crackdown was the huge showdown in Congress over the most recent attempt to push through yet more legislation that supporters claim is necessary to protect American intellectual property. Known as the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, introduced in the House and Senate, respectively, these bills would have greatly strengthened the hand of government when it received complaints about intellectual property violations, especially of sites that hosted pirated materials.

Opponents responded that there weren’t enough safeguards for hosting sites that might not even know they had pirated materials. In fact, the House and Senate measures would have allowed the government to shut down sites that even linked to supposedly offending sites. The law today is stringent enough that even one erroneous complaint letter to a host like YouTube can make that site delete the material even if the letter-writer in actuality has no claim at all on it. The legislation would have pushed that envelope out even further.

The Internet exploded in indignation, but both measures seemed at that point destined to pass. Opponents gradually organized and protested in ever-greater numbers (major sites like Wikipedia shut down for a day to demonstrate what they said might be their fate if either bill became law), whereupon support in Congress wavered and then melted away.

The moral of all this is that technology giveth and technology taketh away. It gives us e-mail, then gives us spam. It bestows both high-definition DVDs and piracy. It allows us to make mistakes at blinding speed, and it taps our budgets for ever-higher amounts. The trade groups trying to eliminate piracy want a world with infinite upside and no downside, and in technology that just isn’t possible.

It’s estimated that one campaign to sue infringers has cost tens of millions of dollars, but yielded perhaps a little over $1 million in settlements, and sharing continues to soar. Sometimes the world we’ve built forces us to accommodate rather than struggle.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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