Targeting Online Piracy

Current legislative attempts to reduce online piracy in the United States suffer from a lack of focus. The PROTECT–IP Act, proposed in the Senate earlier this year, and the more recent Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), proposed in the House last week, each attempts to shut down non-P2P services and methods of content delivery outright. These bills’ blunt approach ignores the users who knowingly upload copyrighted works to such websites without compensating artists. Due to the nature of how content is shared over the Internet, such legislation will be ultimately unsuccessful. Requiring online storage sites to make sure piracy does not occur on their websites would be a more practical solution, and Congress would be wiser to modify their approach to an end-user focus. In addition, online non-P2P piracy in the United States should be acknowledged as occurring primarily with the aid of companies based internationally. Therefore, in tandem with domestic policy, diplomatic pressure should be placed on the “piracy havens” which harbor such companies.

The PROTECT–IP Act and SOPA both aim at disabling the effectiveness of sites “Dedicated to Theft of U.S. Property,” as the SOPA puts it in Section 103. If people were unlawfully obtaining copyrighted material through such “dedicated theft sites,” the problem of piracy could have been easily solved long ago using the same techniques of payment deprivation currently being applied with success to Wikileaks. This is the process both the PROTECT-IP Act and SOPA attempt to enshrine in law for greater ease with future cases of copyright infringement. Though the intention to shut down sites through which infringement occurs is laudable, the unilateral approach both bills take does not acknowledge the complexity of how online infringement most commonly takes place.

It is unproductive for legislators to ask which websites are “dedicated to theft of U.S. property,” as the question will not yield clear answers. Neither the PROTECT-IP Act nor SOPA would be able to take down the most popular sites through which the vast majority of non-P2P piracy of movies and music takes place. Such websites are online storage websites termed “cyber lockers;” Examples include the well-known Rapidshare and Megaupload sites, operated from Switzerland and Hong Kong, respectively. Besides being based outside the United States, these sites can be used by anyone to upload anything to be downloaded by anyone and therefore cannot be accused of being “dedicated to theft.” As with regular theft, Congress must realize that outlawing a method of transporting or storing stolen materials cannot solve online piracy.

Rather than taking the misguided approach that the PROTECT – IP Act and SOPA both take, Congress must recognize that they can only successfully target copyright infringers. Only three options exist for Congress to do so: The government must require copyright holders to enforce the law, the government itself must enforce the law, or the “cyber lockers” must be required to enforce the law. Currently, copyright holders are primarily required to enforce the law. If informed by a copyright holder of a case of infringement, “cyber lockers” are required to take down any infringing files.

Obviously, few copyright holders can afford to take the trouble to scour the Internet for such files. The government does not possess the resources to combat piracy on such a large scale either. The only logical solution is to entrust the responsibility of copyright enforcement to the “cyber lockers” and to coordinate diplomatically such an approach with the authorities of the locales in which “cyber lockers” are located.

Pirates who download a music album from a website like Megaupload are exactly like thieves who steal CDs from stores—except that there are no security cameras to catch them in the act. The government must require “cyber lockers” to undertake the dirty work of policing piracy on an individual level. Internet Service Providers in the United States should be required by law to block access to any “cyber lockers” which refuse to undertake such copyright surveillance on their sites. The government should approach this problem similarly to its aggressive stance toward the use of Swiss banks as offshore tax havens. This means that, while passing domestic law that requires such behavior, the government should also place diplomatic pressure on Switzerland, Hong Kong,and any other “piracy havens” to enforce the same protocol.

The methods of law enforcement advocated by the PROTECT-IP Act and SOPA are inefficient and ineffective. In order to stop piracy, law must require the “cyber lockers” that have facilitated piracy until now to take upon themselves the responsibility to target content uploaders who infringe on copyright. Since the Internet is a global arena, only global approaches to law enforcement will work in combating piracy. This necessitates a mix of well-thought out domestic policy and carefully placed diplomatic pressure in order to eliminate the use of “cyber lockers” for piracy. Only when the problem of non-P2P piracy has been acknowledged in its full complexity and on a global scale will it finally be stopped.

Nikhil Mulani ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Eliot House.