Don’t steal this video: Internet piracy grows

by Lauren Padia and Alex Baumgardner
June 03, 2010
pirate bay 1

Alex Baumgardner/MEDILL

Despite the potential pitfalls potenitial users face downloading unlicenced material, millions of people continue to flock to file-sharing sites to download music, movies and software

Internet users help themselves to billions of dollars worth of unauthorized music, software, movies and other content  for free each year. Cyberspace police and lawyers continue to look for ways to sink the ships of what they see as modern-day pirates.

“Theft of intellectual property is like any other form of theft,” said Matt Reid, vice president of communication at the Business Software Alliance (BSA). “It is a very real impact on these companies. It may seem very small and incremental on an individual basis, but when you added up the impact of that, it really has an effect on these companies, and their ability to invest in the next generation of technology for all of us.

“And when you think about it, there’s a real competitive advantage that companies are enjoying because they aren’t paying for the software their using, where as their competitors are paying for their software,” he said.

Some sites, such as the Pirate Bay, are making personal access ever friendlier. But you may get a subpoena for downloading that copy of the blockbuster movie Hurt Locker from various sites. For individuals, file sharing just got riskier.

In the most recent example of court involvement in illegal downloading, Voltage Pictures, the independent film production company behind the Oscar-winning film, recently filed a copyright complaint in federal court against 5,000 downloaders and served them with subpoenas.

The BSA’s membership covers some of the worlds largest technology companies, including Microsoft, Apple and Adobe. The group recently released a study that found that the worldwide commercial value of unlicensed software reached $51.4 billion in 2009, meaning that the dollar amount of illegally licensed software currently existing in the world is greater than more than the GDP of more than 100 countries.

In emerging economies, such as China, where Reid said about eight of every 10 pieces of software installed last year were unlicensed.“Last year, 86 percent of the growth in the PC market took place in China, India and Brazil,” Reid said. “And all three of those markets have high piracy rates.”

While the United States still has the highest commercial value of illegally licensed software, emerging economies in places such as China download large amounts of pirated software.

While the use of unlicensed software continues to be a very real issue for software companies, movie studios and record labels, some advocates, including the Free Software Foundation (FSF), argue that it’s important to first define what piracy is before discussing whether or not it is truly a problem.

“We don’t agree with the term,” said Matt Lee, campaign manager for the FSF. “We use the term unauthorized copying.”

But for the FSF – who’s founder Richard Stallman is the legendary developer of GNU/Linux, an operating system that promotes free software – the gray area doesn’t end in the just the name. While they, along with many others, maintain the selling of illegally licensed content is wrong, their stance on free distribution is a bit different.

“The position we take is that most creative works ought to be at least available for noncommercial sharing,” Lee said. “For example, if I copy a music file for you personally, that’s different than making 1,000 copies of it for a profit …We aren’t concerned with how to restrict people on how to get our software.”

File sharing sites such as the not-for-profit Pirate Bay, which operates out of Sweden, provide a hub for searchers looking for downloadable software, music, movies, video games – basically anything that can be uploaded to the Internet. Three developers and a user of the site were found guilty for collaborating to violate copyright law in 2009 in a verdict issued in Stockholm, but the verdict is under appeal and the appeals case is scheduled to be heard later this year. Meanwhile, the site continues to operate.

At the turn of the millennium, Napster introduced many Americans to file sharing, an idea that, at its core, was the basis for the creation of the Internet. Birthed out of a need to share large quantities information, the Internet was initially designed to enhance communication between research institutions to enhance their work.

But it wasn’t until a 19-year-old computer whiz kid named Shawn Fanning developed the program that allowed users to easily share and download music and videos to their computers in 1998 that file sharing became a household term. The software was called Napster and suddenly, media distribution mushroomed into a phenomenon.

After Napster was shut down for copyright violations in 2001, new file sharing software followed, such as Limewire, which is now fighting for its own life in court nearly a decade later.

Unlike Napster, Pirate Bay isn’t software. It’s simply a website that links to torrent files, which are downloaded byte-by-byte not from a single user, but from hundreds of others across the Internet who are hosting, or “seeding,” the file. Essentially, the movie you’ve downloaded is a composite of all the torrent files.

“The thing with the Pirate Bay is that they aren’t doing anything,” Lee said. “They provide a link to a torrent file, which is hosted elsewhere. Their role is similar to Google or Yahoo. But we’re sort of more favorable to the idea of personal sharing. A friend copies a song for you, as opposed to for you and a thousand other people.”

In a statement following the verdict, Magnus Eriksson, a co-founder of the group that would become the Pirate Bay but not a defendant, said that copyrighted material should not be made readily available for everyone. But the fact that it already is makes it more than a simple two-sided issue, he said.

“The control over what people communicate is lost and we have to adapt to this new state of things,” he told CNN in 2009 via e-mail. “To monitor all communications, fight all new digital technologies and spread a culture of fear in what should be a free and open communication network is not a desirable option.”

Reid, of the BSA, suggested that the best way to deal with the massive amount of illegally licensed material on the Internet is through further government intervention and enforcement and through educating users on the potential dangers involved with downloading free software.

“You open yourself up to viruses and malware,” Reid said. “The industry needs to continue to innovate from a security standpoint because the bad guys are smart, and quick and they’re innovating all the time too to continue their enterprises. It just takes ongoing diligence and persistence to make sure both law enforcement and industry are doing what they can do peruse criminals.”

The FSF is a non-profit supported in part by donations. It publishes one of the world’s most popular free software licenses, the GNU General Public License, which is used by several free software products including the Mozilla Firefox web browser, and Audacity, a sound editing program. They are also working on a free software replacement for Skype. For them, the importance is placed on ensuring as much software is available as possible.

“We are making software available in the sense that it’s free like freedom,” Lee said. “Anyone can take our software, change it or distribute it to other people. For us, having distribution free without charge is an effective way for making our software available to the masses.”

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