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David Zax

A View from David Zax

The “Six Strikes” Copyright Alert System Is Toothless

What will stem piracy?

  • February 27, 2013

When I was a wee college sophomore, about a decade ago, my Intro to Photography professor was made an example of. The Recording Industry Association of America filed a federal lawsuit against him and 260 others who it claimed were “major offenders” and had illegally downloaded 1,000 copyrighted music files or more. I wasn’t very Napster or Torrent inclined already (and am generally a fairly risk-averse person), but the move scared me off piracy for good. More to the point, as a working writer, I’m come to feel strongly about the need to be paid for what one creates.

Sometimes it seems like those days of cudgel-wielding are over. Something called the “Copyright Alert System” (CAS, for short), first announced in July 2011, will finally be rolling out this week. The Center for Copyright Information announced it would be implementing the system in partnership with ISPs. But the system is relatively toothless, as I’ll get into below.

Recall–it can be easy to forget!–that it is in fact illegal to download copyrighted material, such as music and movies, without paying for them. With the CAS in place, ISPs will take a series of progressive measures to deal with people participating in such piracy. (PCMag and others have summed up some of these measures.) Your ISP will begin with a message telling you what you’re doing is–whoops!–illegal, progress through requiring some sort of acknowledgment on your part, and might eventually wind up slapping down “mitigation measures” like throttling.

Throttling! This is the great threat the pirate or the pirate’s conspirator faces today: slow download rates. My photography professor (poor guy) had to sell tee-shirts branded “Save Tim” to support his legal defense fund; now we worry mainly about whether our pirated copy of that Grizzly Bear album will download by dinner or not.

Lifehacker further points out that the CAS “only monitors peer-to-peer traffic from public BitTorrent trackers.” You can still get off scot-free using private BitTorrent trackers, email attachments, file lockers, or the like. Devoted freeloaders will have no problems here; if you’re a novice, the post’s author even gives you other ideas of how to get around the system.

Even this official video from the Center for Copyright Information screams delicacy (if such a thing is possible). The whole thing bends over backwards to reassure people that Big Brother is not watching, per se.

I’m all for Internet privacy, but I’m also for creators getting paid for their creations–something that’s increasingly just not happening, particularly in the music industry. I was a relatively early adopter of Rhapsody’s $10-a-month pay-to-stream service, and adopted Spotify, an incredible app, as soon as it was available in the U.S. Yet even those services may be underpriced–I still feel like something of a pirate, given all the value I get for the measly price of a CD a month–and may not split revenues with artists in a way that is beneficial to the music industry as a whole, many argue.

What I want is a culture that values creation and deems it worthy of remuneration. We may not get there of the kindness of our hearts, so regulation–even lawsuits–may form a part of this. Some of the most stirring recent writing on the topic has come from Chris Ruen, reporting for the music site Stereogum. Ruen thinks a lot of the legislation being suggested in Washington right now is misguided (he uses particularly colorful language to describe the Internet Radio Fairness Act, which he feels siphons yet more money from artists to the tech companies who are their supposed saviors).

Ruen suggests that attacking the Hydra-headed beast that is online piracy involves going into the thicket of those creepy ad-supported sites with a hatchet and simply cutting off the lifeblood. He proposes, among other bright ideas, “pressuring the government to make sure US payment processors and advertising networks aren’t doing business with overseas torrent trackers, cyberlockers, and websites everyone knows exist only to deny musicians their common rights.” He also wouldn’t mind it so much if Google didn’t allow sites like Pirate Bay to rise to the top.

Piracy’s a big problem, and there are a lot of potential ways to fight it. I’m not betting on the CAS being an especially effective one.

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