Friday, March 30, 2007

RIAA, P2P, MGM v Grokster -- still a problem

The April 5, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone has an article “RIAA’s Campus Crackdown” by Steve Knopper. The subtitle of the article is “Thousands of college kids targeted for illegal file-sharing.” The general technique is for the RIAA to get a list of ISPs involved in supposed illegal downloads, notify colleges and universities owning them, and then the schools pass on the letters to students, which offer quick settlements in lieu of being sued. A typical settlement may be $3000 or so, where as a suit could claim hundreds of dollars per song and sometimes add up into the millions of a single student. The practical reality is that students, already facing student loans and debt, probably cannot afford to fight. There are real concerns in dormitories that students could be misidentified, as the article points out. Similarly, home users have sometimes been contacted by the industry with settlement demands (rather like a call from a debt collector), sometimes parents unaware of their kids’ illegal downloading.

One can read Electronic Frontier Foundation’s writeup and many links here.

The industry offers the website p2plawsuits with some rather blunt short answers to FAQ’s. It also has, on its home page, an invitation: “do you want to settle a case online?”

A related site is MusicUnited. This site discusses the audio flag provisions of H.R. 5252, the “Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006”, here.

All of this follows the Supreme Court decision on MGM v. Grokster in June 2005, which I discuss at this link. The Court agreed with the idea of service provider downstream liability when the business model is predicated on infringement, but now on downstream liability in other cases. Many of us have been concerned that the recording industry does not like to see technology used by newbies with low costs who could free-entry themselves and compete with large companies. The record companies will, of course, deny this.

My own feeling about all of this is mixed. As an “artist” I know that I have to figure out a way to sell my books, web materials and screenplay scripts. That depends on a legal environment in which investors know that copyrights must be respected. On the other hand, I don’t want to see this kind of thinking used to bully out competition that offers material for free or for low cost – and this is a related controversy. My own scripts would not lead to the kind of movies that are obvious targets for piracy.

Personally, there are so many opportunities now to download materials (or rent films) legally for very low cost that P2P infringement sounds like dumb behavior. (Even dumber is the bogus CD's from street vendors. I wouldn't touch them.) However, when the P2P practice started, record companies had been overly insular, not releasing music legally in small units that consumers could afford.

Personally, I don’t engage in P2P file sharing at all now, although that could change if I decide to use it later to distribute some of my own video material. Then I can see running into problems.

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