Last time there was an attempt to turn streaming copyrighted content into a felony the effort was crushed when the Internet rose up and defeated SOPA. But this week the thorny issue was again raised before Congress, with a suggestion that until the offense is considered a felony rather than a misdemeanor, enforcement will be problematic. Across the Atlantic, Pirate Bay nemesis Rights Alliance says that while enforcement against torrents continues, visitors to streaming sites are on the increase.
For close on ten years the mainstream movie and TV studios have struggled with BitTorrent piracy.
Despite years of high-profile crackdowns on sites and their users, very few inroads have been made into reducing the amount of content being shared via the famous protocol. In fact, one might argue that in the past few years things have only become worse.
Among the technologically literate youth, mechanisms for obtaining unauthorized media are now common knowledge and BitTorrent is on the way to becoming a household name.
With this in mind the studios and their music industry counterparts are now embarking on a new educational drive. Wrapped up in projects such as “six strikes” in the United States, these initiatives aim to inform people that obtaining copyright material online without permission is illegal.
But education cuts both ways, and increasingly people are learning that it is the sharing or “uploading” of content that is what puts people in trouble. Uploading is built into BitTorrent so aside from a user employing IP masking techniques, little can be done about that. However, there are other ways of viewing movies and TV shows online, methods that are virtually 100% safe.
These days the “YouTube experience” is something familiar to most Internet users. Do a search, call up a page, press play and a video appears in the browser. But while YouTube specializes in general content there are dozens of sites that offer all the latest TV shows and movies in the same format and just as easily.
Fire up a site like Movie2K or TubePlus and not only are the perceived complexities of BitTorrent instantly removed, but also pretty much all of the risk too. No wonder they’re becoming so popular.
However, the rise of streaming sites isn’t going unnoticed. The industry-backed SOPA legislation would have allowed for harsh criminal penalties to be attached to streaming, had it not been defeated by a massive Internet revolt of course. But months on and the issue is now being raised again, on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond.
According to U.S. Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante, the legislative gap between downloading and streaming needs to be addressed.
“There is a gap in the law,” Pallante told a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet yesterday.
“Law enforcement can go after the reproduction or the distribution [of copyright material], and they can go after them in a meaningful way because they are felonies, not misdemeanors. Streaming, whether it’s a football game or music, is a misdemeanor,” she said.
“If there is illegal streaming happening, especially in an egregious, willful, profit-driven kind of way, how do you get at that activity if the best that you can do is go after them for a misdemeanor?” Pallante added.
Although there is indeed a theoretical weakness in the law, one could be forgiven for thinking that wasn’t the case. The operators of streaming video portal NinjaVideo were all severely punished for their role in the site. Megavideo, a streaming service that needs no introduction, is currently the subject of the biggest copyright battle of all time.
On the flipside, other streaming and linking cases have been dealt with relatively amicably recently, including the conclusion of the U.S. case against UK resident Richard O’Dwyer and the amnesty given to operator of ChannelSurfing.
Of course the problem isn’t isolated in the United States. Over in Sweden, the spiritual home of The Pirate Bay, an interesting trend is developing.
Previously known as Antipiratbyran, Rättighetsalliansen (Rights Alliance) is well know for its anti-piracy activities. Just recently it scooped dozens of headlines with its demand that The Pirate Bay must get out of Sweden, but largely out of the public eye it also takes action against smaller sites.
But with their successes comes a flipside – as they continue to target file-sharing services, there is an increase in visitors to streaming sites.
“We can see that about 60 million movies were downloaded last year,” Henrik Pontén of Rights Alliance told SVT. “The latest figure we have on streaming is almost a year old, but then it was 20 million movies. It has increased since and we will soon get new statistics.”
Chasing down BitTorrent users in Sweden has its problems but the law is able to deal with those uploading copyrighted material, even if the punishments aren’t particularly harsh for an isolated user. However, those who watch streaming movies can do so with impunity. Not only can they not be monitored by anti-piracy outfits, but it’s possible that they aren’t even breaking the law either.
“Streaming is a growing problem,” says Pontén. “From the creators’ point of view, it’s irrelevant what technology is used, they lose sales and legislators have to deal with that.”
In any event, it seems that streaming is here to stay. Most of the sites providing the streams are outside the U.S. and Sweden and although they don’t say much in public, their operators don’t seem overly concerned about what the authorities think. Expect the activity to continue growing as more and more “strikes” warnings go out.