Blog Post

New Anti-Piracy Tactic Turns ISPs Into Copyright Cops

For over a decade the recording industry attempted to crack down on peer-to-peer file-sharing using threats and lawsuits. But digital music piracy continued to bloom as users grew accustomed to content they could easily download for free. Now, the industry is trying a new tactic by enlisting internet service providers to issue warnings to suspected pirates. The White House supports the plan, but will it be any more effective in reviving the fortunes of the floundering recording industry?

Under the plan, the top US Internet providers, including Comcast (NSDQ: CMCSA), AT&T (NYSE: T), Verizon, and Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC), have voluntarily agreed to notify suspected copyright scofflaws though a series of escalating warnings. The new system isn’t as draconian as other plans that have been debated in recent years, including the infamous “three strikes” system that would have cut off a suspected pirate’s internet access after three “violations.”

Copyright owners have trawled file-sharing networks for years, collecting the IP addresses of piracy suspects. That’s how they were able to amass the list of thousands of internet users who were then pressured to settle the claims or face expensive lawsuits. Under the new regime, copyright owners will notify ISPs if their customers’ IP addresses are discovered. The ISPs will then warn the user to knock it off.

It’s worth noting that ISPs won’t be required to terminate a suspected pirate’s internet service, a component of the plan which no doubt helped bring the service providers on board. After all, it’s not exactly in their interest to lose subscribers, who would presumably switch to one of their competitors.

Still, the new system effectively turns the nation’s largest internet service providers into copyright cops. It’s quite a turn-about for the service providers, which have resisted becoming enforcement arms of the entertainment industry, as Timothy B. Lee noted at Ars Technica. It’s one of the “more dramatic moves away from the basic principle that network operators don’t play policeman in non-technical areas,” Lee wrote.

What explains the reversal? Pressure from the Obama Administration presumably didn’t hurt. Last week U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator Victoria Espinel praised the new system, saying it will have “a significant impact on reducing online piracy.”

“We believe that this agreement is a positive step and consistent with our strategy of encouraging voluntary efforts to strengthen online intellectual property enforcement and with our broader Internet policy principles, emphasizing privacy, free speech, competition and due process,” Espinel wrote in a White House blog post.

The service providers may have also decided that now is a good time to make nice with the content owners. After all, with the emergence of new distribution models, particularly on-demand viewing, content — professionally produced movies, TV shows, and music — has taken on renewed importance. And now that Comcast controls NBC Universal and its vast stable of rich programming, what was the cable giant going to do? Refuse to police suspected copyright infringement of material it now owns? Hardly.

In truth, the new system is just forceful enough to enable the service providers to say they are participating in good faith in the fight to stamp out digital piracy. But time and time again, peer-to-peer file-sharers have demonstrated their ability evade detection, in one of the internet’s longest-running games of “Whac-a-Mole.” While the new system may deter some digital pirates, it does nothing to address the fundamental, structural changes wrought by the internet that have rocked the recording industry and Hollywood. Internet users may now have “six strikes,” but when it comes to facing the intellectual property challenges posed by the internet, the entertainment industry has long since struck out.