RIAA, MPAA Copyright Warnings: Facts and Fiction

This week several scary stories surfaced about how the MPAA and RIAA are negotiating with ISPs on how to deal with copyright infringers. Even though it was often presented as news, those who look deeper will realize that this is nothing new at all, just the same old threats dressed up in a new jacket.

It’s has been a good week for the entertainment industry lobbyists. Hundreds of news outlets wrote in detail about how the RIAA and MPAA are negotiating with Internet service providers to warn alleged copyright infringers. No one seemed to notice that this isn’t really news as they’ve been working together for years, with ISPs passing on warnings to their customers on behalf of the studios.

It all started with rumors about two US ISPs, Comcast and AT&T, who were said to be doing a three-strikes deal with the RIAA. It soon became known that this rumor was completely fabricated, but not before hundreds of other news oulets reproduced the story. At the end of the week it turned out that there was no news at all.

Yes, the RIAA, MPAA and other outfits do plan to send copyright infringement warnings to ISPs, but they’ve been doing so for at least half a decade. Every other month these Hollywood lobbyists pitch their anti-piracy efforts to the public, and that’s exactly what they are paid for. This doesn’t mean, however, that something is about to change.

The anti-piracy outfits are happy with all the free publicity of course, that is exactly what they are after. Their purpose is to scare people. In this post we hope to clear up some of the misunderstandings, as we show that the scary stories published this week have no substance at all.

Copyright infringement warnings?

For years, content owners such as record labels or movie studios have been sending copyright infringement notices to ISPs, who are legally obliged to forward these to their customers. Some ISPs simply ignore them, while others faithfully forward the emails to the customer account associated with the infringing IP-address. Many ISPs don’t keep records of these events.

So, is my ISP spying on me?

No. This is a common misunderstanding. ISPs don’t look into your specific downloading behavior, they never have and there is no indication that this will change anytime in the near future. All the ‘evidence’ comes from organizations that work for the copyright holders.

What do they know about me?

If you receive a warning, all copyright holders know about you at this stage is your IP-address and what files were (partially) shared via your account, or more accurately – the bill payer’s account. The MPAA, RIAA and others don’t know your name and they never will unless they get a court order forcing your ISP to hand over the information. In the bigger picture, this is very rare.

Information provided in a typical copyright warning.

infringement warning

How did they track me down?

The copyright holders hire companies such as BayTSP and DtecNet to track down people who share certain titles on BitTorrent and other file-sharing networks. They join the swarm and request files from others. When someone shares a piece of the file with them they log the IP-address, look up the ISP and send out a copyright infringement notice automatically. Unlike the file-sharers, these companies are authorized to download these files, so they are not infringing copyright themselves.

Will I get sued if I receive a warning through my ISP?

No. These copyright infringement warnings are not related to any legal action. Copyright holders do go after people who share their work on file-sharing networks, but this has nothing to do with the warnings they send out via ISPs.

Will they take my Internet away?

No. Although there is a lot of talk about “three strikes” policies, no ISP has agreed (or was forced) to disconnect users after they receive their third warning. In New Zealand they came close to implementing a law that would require ISPs to do this, but this proposal was pulled.

In France they are also considering three strikes legislation, but this has not passed into action yet. In Ireland the largest ISP Eircom said it would disconnect repeated infringers only if they receive a court order.

It is worth mentioning though that ISPs may cut off people whenever they think it’s necessary. Cox does this in the US for example, without an agreement with the MPAA or RIAA. ISPs have terms and conditions and most forbid copyright infringement, but really this is just to cover their own backs under the law.

Do I have to be worried?

Receiving a regular infringement notice is nothing to be worried about. However, if you download copyrighted files without authorization from the copyright holder you are breaking the law in some countries. If you receive a warning without having shared anything yourself (which happens quite often) then there’s nothing to worry about.

Can I protect (hide) myself?

If you don’t want to be spied on when using BitTorrent the best option is to hide your IP-address. You can do so by subscribing to a VPN service or by using software such as TorrentPrivacy. Blocklist software such as PeerGuardian is often recommended, but it is also highly ineffective as the lists are never fully up-to date or accurate.

What’s the point in all this?

The MPAA and RIAA don’t want their products on file-sharing networks and they use these warning emails to deter people from sharing these files with others. Since it’s much cheaper (and effective) than suing people, this is now their strategy of choice. Using news outlets to spread their doom and gloom scenarios is just part of their operation.

In the future the amount of warnings they send out to alleged infringers will increase and the studios and ISPs will work together to keep the associated operating costs down, if that’s not what they’ve already been doing in their recent meetings. It’s just the old model, scaled up with a rumor or two on top.

Let’s move on already.

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