It has been a few weeks now since the guilty verdict was handed down in the infamous Pirate Bay trial. This was the latest legal battle over copyright infringement involving file sharing – the use of a site or service that helps you find and download material hosted on other computers around the world. Frequently, those files found and downloaded are illegal copies of other people's intellectual property – software, music and movies. That, of course, is the problem, and that's why those who own and run file-sharing sites tend to find themselves in court. It's also why they rarely win.
As reported in the MediaPost News, "file-sharing sites have never won a high-profile copyright infringement case." Remember Napster? The international graffiti board Wikipedia claims that Napster "paved the way for decentralized peer-to-peer file-distribution programs, which have been much harder to control," and it may even be right (at least until some anonymous user edits the page to add some cartoon character references in L33T speak). The fundamental issue is that file-sharing sites like Pirate Bay facilitate the theft of copyrighted material. Even though the site owners are not themselves hosting the material, they're making it possible to find it and download it with full and complete knowledge that this is the express, explicit purpose of their site. Very few people use a site like Pirate Bay to download legal shareware; they're downloading free stuff they'd otherwise have to buy. The site owners know this. Even the name, "Pirate Bay," is a nod to this fact.
MediaPost quotes copyright lawyer Ben Sheffner, who blogged, "At what point will defenders of the Pirate Bay and similar sites and services realize that 'but we didn't actually host the movies and music ourselves' is not a defense to a claim of secondary liability ...?" The Pirate Bay's lawyers nevertheless trotted out every ridiculous rationalization, excuse, loophole and giant primate metaphor they could imagine ... all while smiling, winking and nudging those around them, because, of course, we all know the point of the site is to find and download pirated copies of movies, music and software.
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Defenders of Pirate Bay likened the site to a search engine and shrieked that Internet giant Google must then be held liable for any illegal downloads located through the site. Such a dangerous legal precedent would cripple the Internet, they intoned. Why, they cautioned, it's like blaming Ford and Jack Daniels for the actions of a drunk driver. The Pirate Bay folks built a search engine, and nothing more; they weren't hosting the files so they couldn't possibly be breaking the law.
Well, the analogy doesn't quite hold; it would be more correct to describe the Pirate Bay folks as handing over, to already intoxicated individuals, illegally made copies of car keys and maps indicating the locations of parked, stolen cars. To then blame them for the drunken driving that results doesn't seem so unreasonable. Pointing this out doesn't in any way dissuade the Pirate Bay's users and supporters, however. Their sense of entitlement, which is only too common in our popular culture, is at once rationalization and rationale for their thieving of others' intellectual property. It's an attitude generated by and entrenched in our culture through the ease with which modern technology allows us to find and download such illegally copied material.
"When the 'entertainment' industry starts playing by the rules of fair use," one such Pirate Bay user told me through a discussion board, "... [not to mention] the original intent of copyright protection, I'll start paying for everything. [U]ntil then, I'll support the artists I can, as I can with what resources I can." In other words, the young fellow will steal what he likes and rationalize it after the fact – all while blaming the vague, unspecified "greed" of Big, Evil Corporations who somehow "stifle innovation" through actually demanding to be paid for the use of their intellectual property.
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Supporters of file-sharing sites like Pirate Bay would have you believe that only allowing anyone to download whatever they like, at any time, completely for free, enables us to develop new software, new protocols and new methods for doing things – but of course, this is false. If anything, it is the drive to protect intellectual copyright through new file formats, or in the context of new platforms and new business models, that truly drives technological innovation. The forward march of technological progress is hardly brought to a halt because Metallica doesn't want you to download their catalog for free.
If the fact that you're stealing doesn't dissuade you from downloading copyrighted movies and music from file-sharing services, consider simple self-preservation (in the context of your computer and its data). If, for example, you are regularly using the BitTorrent protocol to download material from sites like the Pirate Bay, I guarantee you have unidentified malware on your computer. Torrent true-believers claim that you're no more likely to pick up a computer virus using BitTorrent than you are using the Internet in general; they'd like you to believe the Torrent community, in between hour-long sessions of holding hands and singing uplifting songs, polices itself and quickly roots out those rare malicious individuals who might be spreading infected files. This, of course, is the same idealistic theory on which Wikipedia is based – and we've all seen how reliable and objective that self-policed, community-run resource can be. File-sharing sites like Pirate Bay are a portal to the very unsafe, untrustworthy or otherwise suspicious sites about which your anti-virus software and even your Web browser are always pestering you.
Technological innovation is changing how we obtain, use and store music, video and software. Such innovation, however, is not an excuse to steal. File-sharing protocols may indeed be a powerful means of transmitting and sharing large volumes of data quickly and efficiently – but you still have to pay to use other people's intellectual property. That's a fact, and it's a fact worth remembering.