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Is The End of Digital Piracy Nigh?

Jun 23 2011, 5:54am CDT | by , in News | Technology News

Is The End of Digital Piracy Nigh?

Big Content certainly thinks so.

The end of an era may be very near. For years, Big Content has waged a war of scorched earth and sued 5-year-olds, all with the ultimate goal of stopping online pirates. Up until this point, it has been a largely unsuccessful crusade. Torrenting has continued across the world, and major releases leak out onto the Internet earlier and earlier each year. But the content kings may finally be close to the breakthrough they've long sought.

Several major US ISPs appear to be on the brink of a major shift in their piracy strategies. Verizon, Comcast, etc are on the cusp of an agreement with major content providers to strangle piracy at the source. Users who download copyrighted material may soon find themselves served a letter of warning. If that warning is ignored, potential escalations could include bandwidth caps- and worse.

One possible "punishment" would involve blocking the user from all but the 200 "most popular" sites on the web. Subscribers may also be asked to submit to a course on copyright law, which sounds like it would amount to a Defensive Driving course for Internet users. While that sort of punishment seems destined to be ineffective, capping what subscribers can actually do online is a powerful incentive to avoid piracy.

Or, at least, to avoid getting caught.

And the effectiveness of these measures will rely entirely on whether or not users can avoid being caught. Some piracy is inevitable. There will always be a small crop of users who are clever and savvy enough to get away with it. But if these new measures can make the burden of piracy too high for the 'average' pirate to bear, we may see some real change.

I can't imagine that change will be permanent, though. Piracy has been endemic to every generation of media. Every crusade against it has met with temporary success (at best) or absolute failure (the most common result). It seems unlikely that this will be the offensive that finally squashes the impact of piracy. But the nature of the Internet makes it possible that piracy will take a very long time to recover.

The current age of torrenting has been made possible by ISPs that acted as 'dumb pipes'. AT&T didn't ask you what you planned to do with your bandwidth, and they wouldn't hamper you even if you used it to break the law. ISPs now seemed destined to take on a new role as enforcers for Big Content. The average pirate isn't careful or knowledgeable enough to avoid their prying eyes.

Standing where we are right now, in a world where every new movie release hits the BitTorrent sites a week before theaters, it seems hard to believe that change is possible. The ISPs have been so slow to move, and Big Content's initial attacks on piracy were so clumsy, that many assumed pirates would always run roughshod over copyright law. It appears that those years of waiting and negotiating have paid off for the content providers, though. They may have hit upon a solution to piracy that doesn't involve ugly, PR-nightmare lawsuits (finally).

But you'd be a fool to count the 'forces of disorder' out. Free media is powerfully attractive to millions of smart people all around the world. They won't stop their multi-decade habits just because the environment shifts around them a little bit. This new alliance between Big Content and Big ISP may well be a defining move in the war on piracy- but it is very, very far from the final one.

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