Casual Music Piracy: Stopped by Warning Notices?
Someone surprised me the other day when he told me that some of his friends had received cease-and-desist notices because of illegally sharing music online. I thought groups like the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) only go after people who share music in mass, and I assume the friends don’t traffic enough to draw attention to themselves. Even if they do, it surprises me because personally addressed cease-and-desist notices take away a veil of anonymity that characterizes Internet behavior. The veil was never really there to begin with because IP addresses link Internet activity to named subscribers, but that doesn’t mean people don’t act as if their identities are hidden. Anybody’s misplaced notion like this is bound to disappear though if they receive a legal notice with their name on it.
It looks like these notices are a product of cooperation between Big Media (RIAA and the MPAA) and Internet Service Providers like AT&T and Comcast. Their agreements aren’t final and are still being negotiated, but they emphasize mitigating piracy instead of punishing people who illegally share. This means that instead of being sued if you illegally download music, you might receive a letter that identifies your activity and reminds you of its illegality. If your activity continues, Big Media can request your ISP to limit your bandwidth or access to different websites, or even force you to participate in a copyright educational course. I smiled a little when I read about these measures, mostly because it seemed like they were toothless. If you’re not likely to be sued, and ISPs aren’t willing to cut your access altogether, how are these soft-handed measures going to dissuade people from illegally downloading free music?
It occurs to me, though, that these measures are probably not meant to dissuade serious pirates. Instead, they’re meant to help shift the public attitude and send a message that individuals are accountable for their online activity. Think about it. How much does it take to convince someone that it’s not worth it to pirate a song instead of paying $1 for it or just listening to it on any streaming music website? No one wants to be sued for it, but the risk is so low that most people seem to ignore it. Many people just aren’t convinced that they should have to pay for music when its makers are rich celebrities. Nevertheless, the agreements between Big Media and ISPs should produce results because something as simple as sending warning letters reminds people that they’re accountable for breaking copyright laws even if people disagree with them.
If measures like this can shift the public’s perception on media piracy, then more options are available for further cracking down and repeat offenders. If the public agrees that media piracy is illegal, will they have so many objections to the RIAA suing someone after they had been repeatedly warned? Litigation would also not be so infeasible when the offenders are a much smaller group of people who flout well-known laws rather than a teenager who is sued after doing something seemingly harmless.
Another thing that surprised me about all of this is how the ISPs are voluntarily assuming a responsibility and its costs. What is motivating them to enter into agreements with Big Media to help fight online piracy? ISPs don’t have a legal duty to regulate Internet usage, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t in the future. With the White House encouraging these agreements, ISPs might be assuming the costs of these soft-handed measures to avoid those imposed on them by laws that would pass if the ISPs didn’t act. In other words, sending out warning notices isn’t as cheap as doing nothing, but it might be a lot cheaper than what Uncle Sam would have them do.