One of the most striking things about the move by new company Movie Rights Group to start targeting thousands of Australians for allegedly illegally downloading copyrighted films is that it came out of the blue. Many people won’t know what to make of the issue, given that Australia doesn’t have a history of this kind of behaviour. But the United States does.
Over the past week or so since the company’s actions were revealed, a number of readers have forwarded me several insightful articles detailing the history of similar companies in the US. And the picture they paint of this kind of behaviour is quite disturbing.
An article by Wired in March this year makes it clear that for the new breed of organisations devoted to stopping copyright infringement on the Internet, enforcing their clients’ rights is not the prime objective. Making as much profit as possible from the issue is. From the article:
“Welcome to the future of Hollywood, or at least the less glittery outskirts of Tinsel Town that produce art films, exploitation flicks and porn. Over the past year, small-budget film producers have nearly perfected a slick, courtroom-based business strategy that’s targeted more than 130,000 suspected movie downloaders.”
“In contrast to the the RIAA’s much-criticized and now-abandoned war against music pirates — which targeted 20,000 downloaders in six years — the movie lawsuits appear to have been designed from the start as for-profit endeavor, not a as a deterrent to piracy.”
The article paints a picture of organisations almost building copyright enforcement actions into the business model for producing films. The legal mechanisms for targeting alleged file-sharers are automated as far as possible; plaintiffs are entitled to settle and pay a ‘fine’ in a similarly automated process; and many will simply do so, having little to no knowledge of the broader legal debate.
As in Australia with Movie Rights Group, the chief legal method which the copyright enforcement groups are relying on is mass-subpoenas. In a 2010 lawsuit filed by one of the more high-profile organisations, known as the US Copyright Group, a Washington District Judge approved subpoenas relating to more than a thousand Time Warner Cable customers.
Another article published by Arstechnica in 2010 lays out a timeline of such cases, dating back to January 2010 and detailing the standard modus operandi:
“The model couldn’t be simpler: find an indie filmmaker; convince the production company to let you sue individual “John Does” for no charge; send out subpoenas to reveal each Doe’s identity; demand that each person pay $1,500 to $2,500 to make the lawsuit go away; set up a website to accept checks and credit cards; split the revenue with the filmmaker.”
Now, I don’t want to draw too long a bow here. Movie Rights Group has been extremely open with me about their activities in Australia, and I have to give the company credit for that. In addition, we haven’t yet seen what the company’s letters to alleged copyright infringers will look like. It is also possible, indeed, likely, that the company will become involved somehow in the wider industry solution to the issue of online file-sharing which is being discussed by parties including Australia’s major ISPs, the content industry and the Federal Department of the Attorney-General.
But I think what has occurred in the US does sound suspiciously similar to the approach the company is taking in Australia. The same legal approach based on subpoenas. The same independent film studios who’ve got nothing to lose. The same style of web site, promoting the idea that those targeted through legal letters should “settle” the issue.
In the US, civil rights groups, the courts and Internet users themselves have all expressed a great deal of concern about this kind of ‘commercial’ approach to settling issues of copyright infringement. It would be a dangerous thing indeed to start to treat the issue of online copyright infringement as an industry which makes revenues like any other.
The aim here should not be to make astronomical sums from Australians who allegedly pirate content. It should be to find a solid and fair balance between those who produce and own content and those who want to consume it. As many have said before me, suing your customers is never a good idea.