Ever since the introduction of the internet to the commercial market, people have been able to distribute information more easily than ever before. Although this can be advantageous, with the strengthening of communications (E-mail / Instant Messenger), the sharing of information has led to the distribution of intellectual property which is copyrighted. Piracy is a major problem for the music industry, which suffers a fall in sales, due to their product being available for free.
The first website to deliver free music was Napster, established in 1999, which was available to anyone who had a computer connected to the internet. At this point, the concept of music piracy had not been fully established, so Napster was operating free just under a year. Major music artists started complaining when they saw the profits from their songs drop. So, in December 1999, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) decided to take Napster to court, over copyright infringement. So in February 2001, Napster was ordered by the court not to distribute music, at least not for free. Those who still wanted free music jumped the sinking ship, and moved to other file sharing websites, which had begun to establish themselves by this time.
These other websites were allowing users to upload and share their own files, but the websites themselves did not distribute the media. At this time, websites were not responsible for the media being distributed on their websites, so when RIAA came knocking, they had to remove the content, but were not punished in any way. The RIAA decided to start targeting the users of these websites, not the websites themselves, as reducing the supply of piracy didn’t seem to be effective. The legislation behind this act wasn’t sound though, as the legislation declared that “actively and consciously” distributing media was illegal. Many people at this time were computer illiterate, and the RIAA han’t specified what “actively and consciously” meant, so this policy didn’t seem to be very effective.
In 2001, Bram Cohen designed a new way of distributing information over the internet, which is known as Bit Torrent, a data transfer protocol which transfers data as a “swarm”, so there would be many distributors and receivers at the same time. This type of data transfer is very difficult to trace (but not impossible), and is very effective. At any given moment, BitTorrent has more active users than Facebook and YouTube combined, and torrents are accountable for between 45% – 70% of the internet data traffic.
As of 2008, the RIAA stopped their policy of bringing lawsuits against individuals who are distributing or receiving illegal data, but now can ask your ISP (Internet Service Provider – The company which provides your internet service) what data you are downloading. Being caught out could lead to that company either cutting your data download allowance, or just terminating their contract with you.
In 2012, the US government announced a new act – The “Stop Online Piracy Act” (A.k.a SOPA) which in effect allowed the US government prevent advertising networks and payment services from associating with blacklisted websites, and search engines from linking to the websites, and court orders requiring ISPs to block access to the websites. The law would also allow a maximum of 5 years in jail for offenders. This in my opinion, wan’t thought through particually well, as it gave SOPA the ability to close down a website if a single post was to include infringing material. So, if I was to post some free music on WordPress, SOPA would be able to take down the website. A lot of websites have very little control over what their users post, so most websites allowing their users to post would be at risk – including Facebook, Youtube, WordPress, Wikipedia, most Forums etc.
In response to this, On January 18, 2012, Wikipedia and about 7,000 other websites collaborated and shut down their websites to raise awareness. Wikipedia instead showed its users a banner, in which at least 160 million people saw. Other protests included petition drives, with Google collecting over 7 million signatures, boycotts of companies and organizations that support the legislation, and an opposition rally held in New York City.
Websites which claimed to support SOPA were taken down by Distributed Denial of Service attacks, a phenomena where many computers try to join a website at the same time, thus overloading the website. The hacktavist organisation “Anonymous” claimed responsibility in protest to SOPA. This happened on the same day that the file sharing website “Megaupload” was taken down. So far SOPA has not been implemented, but no one knows for sure if an amended version will be released.
I believe the best way to beat piracy is to find an alternative to the way in which the music is distributed. At the moment, I can get (almost) free music by using the music service Spotify, which I am using at the time of writing this article. Spotify lets you stream (not download) free music, but litters in advertising between the tracks, this advertising allows spotify to pay the royalties for providing the music, but also provide premium services to support themselves. Perhaps there is no point in downloading the music, when you can have it for free on such services. Perhaps changing the supply is the best way to combat piracy, not taking the negative incentive approach to the subject.
Article written by Struan McDonough