The war against internet piracy could force ISPs to spy on their customers

A foreign court decision and a bit of legislation floating around Washington could soon reshape the music and video entertainment industry. Time will tell how this will affect your pocketbooks.

The issue in both instances is the digital rights to music, movies, and television shows. For years, the industry has fought an ongoing battle against file sharers, those people who swap tunes and movies without paying a fee to the copyright holders. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which claims that file sharing costs the music world $12.5 billion yearly, has become well known for demanding damages from thousands of people, mostly young, whom it believes have illegally downloaded music.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has done likewise for the movie industry, claiming damages ranging from $30,000 to $150,000 for copyright infringement.

These groups successfully shut down early file-sharing sites such as Napster, which operated much like a library, with a central depository of content. However, BitTorrent technology and peer-to-peer sharing, in which the content to download resides on many user computers rather than a central server, has been harder to rein in. Particularly successful or troublesome, depending on your point of view, has been the Sweden-based peer-to-peer website, Pirate Bay. The Bay has for several years operated with relative impunity, depending on the laxity of Swedish law to insulate it from lawsuits.

After years of lobbying by the entertainment industry, however, the Swedish government finally charged the Pirate Bay creators with a criminal offense. The case began in mid-February and finished a couple of weeks later. The decision is now in the hands of the court, with a ruling expected soon. A civil suit brought by the industry against Pirate Bay is also in the offing.

What are the ramifications of this suit? Pirate Bay is not the only such file-sharing site; in fact, there are even larger ones, such as Mininova, and the industry may find itself in a huge game of whack-a-mole trying to keep up with new sites that step up to replace Pirate Bay.

The entertainment industry would have you believe that by ending file sharing the consumer will enjoy less expensive and higher-quality content. Devotees of content piracy contend that independent bands and movie producers, who benefit from the exposure gained by free distribution, will suffer.

This debate could be moot, however, if the RIAA and MPAA are successful in their attempt to turn internet service providers into the gendarmes of the internet. The associations are backing legislation that would require companies that provide an internet connection, such as Time Warner Cable (TWC), to monitor the traffic in and out of its customers computers for pirated content, then discipline the transgressors, and report the violation to the feds. Sen. Diane Feinstein of California reportedly tried to include in the recently passed stimulus bill measures to control pornography at the ISP level that could also serve the purpose of the RIAA/MPAA.

As you might imagine, many ISPs are balking at the notion, from both the negative press they can expect and the cost of carrying out such a task. Industry experts question whether current software will even work to this end, but I imagine that problem can be solved. A greater worry, in my opinion, is the intrusion of the service provider into the computer user's privacy.

What I want is more good music and video entertainment at a reasonable price. So which side in this battle would best serve those ends? For my money, neither. The industry's insistence on format-bondage of downloaded music (iTunes) frustrates me every time I change the program or device I wish to enjoy my legally purchased tune on. Price competition is almost nonexistent, and the companies continue to serve as kingmakers, anointing a few (pliable?) artists with production, marketing, and distribution, while leaving thousands of capable musicians, directors, and writers out in the cold.

On the other hand, I know some outstanding musicians who have thousands of devotees, yet they live hand-to-mouth because their music is freely shared. There must be a way that these artists can be rewarded by those who enjoy their product. They can't eat free.

A compromise model I've found works very well for me is Rhapsody, a website for which I pay a monthly subscription fee to listen online to music from its extensive catalog. Artists receive a spiff from the company for each time I listen to their songs. In essence, this changes the concept of entertainment as something to be purchased and owned to one of an experience to be paid for. An analogy might be a baseball game. You don't buy a game; you pay to watch.

The digital frontier has changed the concept of ownership of entertainment forever. The Pirate Bay decision and the success of the RIAA/MPAA in pushing ISP monitoring are two battles that will help shape the future, if any, of peer-to-peer file sharing and the industry.

Also read: Another proposed model for music sharing

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