In June 2005 when the now-famous Grokster decision was handed down, initial reaction was almost unanimous. The Internet was alive with this historic defeat – Grokster had been savaged by the Supreme Court, lost their case in the biggest possible way and would have to shut down. No other outfit would dare get involved in file-sharing again, was the knee-jerk assumption, since this case proved it was illegal.
In reality, the truth proved somewhat different.
No one could argue Grokster had been defeated, but the consequences for file-sharing were limited. The real impact was that providers of file-sharing services could now be held liable if it could be shown that they promoted their products for infringing purposes. Careful advertising was all that was required. Furthermore, the decision only affected the United States. Considering the epic scale of the case and the supposed victory, the results were far from devastating.
And now, 4 years later, Mininova, another file-sharing giant that rode on the crest of the BitTorrent wave since the Grokster verdict, has effectively been forced to close down the vast majority of its site, prompting many to feel that BitTorrent is heading for its twilight years.
However, with careful consideration, it may just be possible to create another Mininova that avoids its namesake’s fate, since the court’s decision was not solely related to the existence of links to infringing content, i.e the .torrent files.
The DMCA is widely known in BitTorrent circles. It is the US copyright act (but accepted by many indexers and trackers regardless of location) which many sites quote when offering to take down torrents that link to infringing content. “If you’re the content owner, let us know,” they say, “..and we’ll take down torrents that link to your works.” Complying with so-called ‘DMCA takedown requests’ is widely accepted as a way to stay within the law.
Although Mininova operated such a system, comments by the site’s staff on their forums called their commitment to it into doubt. There are many samples given in the court’s decision, here are just a few. It’s worth noting that many of them date back to 2005, when users, staff and site admins would have been much more relaxed.
“May have been just a take down request (…) i’d say just re upload it (…) thanks for sharing” (posted by site moderator)
“Thanks for reporting, I deleted the fake version and uploaded the correct one” (posted by site admin)
“I made a mistake of downloading a shareware version of Monopoly Jr. only to find out it only allows you to play it for 15 minutes and then it becomes useless,” said a user. “Check the site, it’s there now” (posted by site admin).
Mininova also took pride in their efforts to proactively filter fake files (including in the decision are comments by staff who admit to downloading material to check if it is indeed as labeled), viruses, malware, pornographic and drug-related material, but this seems to have backfired by the corresponding lack of commitment to proactively filter copyright content in the same manner.
The site also carried some very specific categories for its torrents. Not just ‘movies’ or ‘TV’, but also sections such as “CSI” and “Desperate Housewives” which are widely known to be copyright works. One section highlighted in the decision was labeled ‘Disney’. The court decided that since so little Disney material is copyright-free, the section could have little other use than to infringe.
Mininova has never denied making profits (it is a company after all) and the court ruled that the site encouraged and profited “from infringements of copyrights and related rights of the holders represented by Brein.”
To see things from a different perspective, TorrentFreak has been discussing the closure of Mininova with Aldor Nini at digital distribution and anti-piracy solutions company, Easycom, who has been following the case closely.
Interestingly, Aldor informs us that 8 out of 10 torrents on Mininova were not covered by the BREIN lawsuit, which makes us wonder if the site could’ve stayed alive if the other 2 out of 10 were removed before the court’s hand was forced.
“We are very sorry to see a platform like Mininova shut down millions of torrent files,” he told TorrentFreak. “Based on our research we have found out that only 21% of the content was infringing rights of content owners for content used in the proceedings by BREIN. This 21% could probably be the most popular files on the platform, but we cannot confirm this for sure.”
“However, Mininova’s decision to completely remove everything was to 100% conform with what the judge has ruled. A 100% working filter was requested, and the removal of all non moderated user submitted torrents is the only 100% filter available nowadays,” he told us.
In a similar way that file-sharing applications similar to Grokster’s continue to flourish post the ‘big’ 2005 verdict, torrent sites can follow suit, if they are prepared to adapt.
“We do not think that this judgment will directly apply to other torrent portals at all,” Aldor told us, “but rather the way Mininova was operated as a torrent portal.”
Aldor has some interesting thoughts on how torrent sites can continue, without making the same mistakes as Mininova. He argues that torrent sites should behave neutrally, meaning that if they remove fake and spam comments they should filter copyrighted content too.
Based on Aldor’s reasoning, it seems another option is for sites to switch to user-based moderation, where content is automatically removed after a fixed number of downvotes. The bottom line is that the site’s operators (or moderators) should stay neutral.
Further suggestions are to take the takedown procedure seriously and make it easy to use. Sites should notify users that copyrights are to be respected and refrain from using specific categories (such as Disney). Again, based on the basis that site staff should stay neutral, user submitted tags should be fine.
Other more problematic ideas are the increased co-operation with content owners and to “stop thinking in black and white” – surely great advice for both sides and ultimately, the only long term solution.
Not making any profit or donating part of the site’s income to innovative music artists and film makers, and steering clear of scammy advertisers could be further plus points.
Aldor concludes that the lessons are there to be learned from Mininova’s demise.
“The next torrent portals, which will cover the next millions of torrent files, will hopefully learn from this situation. All in all Mininova’s partial shut-down will not influence the worldwide BitTorrent activity, it has just set up the rules for the successors of Mininova.”