Big Brother (Computer) is Watching You

Wednesday Feb 2nd 2011 by Mike Elgan
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Computers and software are now handling pre-enforcement monitoring duty, from illegal downloads to traffic violations.

The 1993 sci-fi action movie Demolition Man depicted a future without violence or disorder. They achieved this, in part, by using technology to automate penalties for rule-breaking.

In one memorable scene, Sylvester Stallone's character discovers that every time he uses profanity, a nearby machine automatically issues a citation. When he needs paper, he casually leans toward the machine and lets loose a string of salty expletives until he's got a neat stack of tickets.

The movie was mediocre, but the vision prescient. We are in fact headed for precisely such a society, where computers instantly identify violators and exact fines, creating a new revenue stream for the enforcer.

It starts out with innovation and experimentation. But the income quickly becomes relied upon and institutionalized.

One common example is the red light camera. If you run a red light at any number of intersections these days, a computerized system takes multiple pictures of the act, reads the license plate, looks you up in the database and sends you a ticket, complete with incontrovertible proof in the form of several photographs. No human need be involved. No witnesses need be present.

People hate them, but the use of red light cameras is easily justified. They save lives and property, reduce costs and increase revenues. Besides, the violators did violate. They had it coming. Only the guilty pay, so it's OK.

If current trends hold, this is how we will slouch toward the Demolition Man society of tomorrow. One transgression at a time will be automated and computerized. Fines will be "harvested" as a matter of course.

Harvesting Copyright Violations on BitTorrent

We're all familiar with the class-action lawsuit, where a large number of people sue a small number of companies. Now, Hollywood has discovered the reverse. One or a few movie companies can sue a very large number of alleged copyright violators, thanks to new software that harvests smoking-gun evidence of illegal downloads.

A German company called Guardaley IT recently developed technology for tracking down illicit movie downloaders. The software both captures the IP address of the person downloading, and also verifies that the file being downloaded is actually an unauthorized copy of a movie.

A law firm called US Copyright Group was granted permission last year to use the software to identify and sue alleged copyright violators.

The firm is one of several that are spearheading a new way to simultaneously enforce copyrights and collect significant revenue from people who have downloaded movies without paying for them on peer-to-peer (P2P) services like BitTorrent.

Other firms that specialize in mass copyright enforcement lawsuits include the Adult Copyright Company and the Copyright Enforcement Group. Their clients started out as mostly indie film companies, but have recently been dominated by adult movie companies.

The user advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation opposes mass copyright infringement lawsuits, saying that the practice "deprives the defendants of fair access to individual justice."

But if the courts continue to allow such suits, it's great news for the companies doing the suing, because it brings in huge revenue, intimidates violators and gains new publicity for older movies. There's really no downside.

There's a growing sense that filmmakers are beginning to look at mass copyright infringement lawsuits as just another revenue-producing distribution channel. Rather than customers paying first and downloading later, the tactic makes downloaders pay for what they have already downloaded.

The approach differs from that employed years ago by the music industry's MPAA, which sought to "make an example" out of seemingly random violators in an effort to change the cultural acceptability of downloading music without paying for it.

The new movie model also wants to scare people way from downloads. But they're also trying to monetize piracy and make real money.

According to the blog TorrentFreak, nearly 100,000 people have been sued for downloading content on peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent. While many of the cases have been dismissed, some 71 percent are still active. The number of lawsuits file apparently rose dramatically in the last three months of 2010. It's a growth industry.

As it now stands, according to the site, some 68 cases are still active, involving 70,914 individual alleged downloaders.

One studio called Liberty Media is an industry leader in lawsuit in copyright collections. Rather than identifying and tracking down individual violators, the company is calling for users of the HotFile site to voluntarily turn themselves in to take advantage of a limited-time "amnesty program."

If downloaders confess during a two-week period beginning Feb 8, fork over $1,000 and promise not to do it again, they will be granted "amnesty" by the company and not be sued. (The maximum penalty in copyright lawsuits allowed by law is $150,000 per downloaded movie.)

Liberty Media even named PayPal in the suit, calling on the online payment company to freeze HotFile's payments account.

Who Cares About BitTorrent Downloaders?

If you don't use P2P networks to download movies, why should this concern you? The reason is that if the tactic is effective – and so far it appears to be – we can look forward to all kinds of content companies, from TV studios to software makers, jumping on the mass-copyright infringement lawsuit craze.

For example, are you violating the many end user license agreements, or EULAs, that you have agreed to and which give you permission to license the software you think you own? Have you read the EULAs? Have you ever read a single EULA?

If companies can automate the discovery of violations of any kind, and add your name to a mass lawsuit, followed by the offer to settle for a few hundred bucks, we could see an explosion in the use of mass copyright infringement lawsuits for software and other kinds of products or content.

The tactic may be especially tempting for a company facing a life-threatening loss of revenue. If you're going to go out of business anyway, you might as well sue your users.

In any event, an era of computer-enhanced mass copyright infringement lawsuits is upon us, and, while it's of direct immediate concern to BitTorrent users, it's something we should all be concerned about in the long run.

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