The UK Did *NOT* Just Decriminalize File-Sharing

All it took yesterday was a single article to trigger off a tidal wave of copycat reports across dozens of sites including the mainstream RT.com. Just to be absolutely clear - Britain HAS NOT decriminalized file-sharing and to suggest otherwise only puts people at unnecessary risk. File-sharing remains ILLEGAL in the UK, guaranteed.

From next year people in the UK can download and share whatever they like. Movies, music and video games. You name it – it’s a free-for-all download bonanza with zero consequences other than four friendly letters asking people to try Netflix and Spotify.

In fact, the UK government has even gone as far as decriminalizing online copyright infringement entirely, despite risking the wrath of every intellectual property owner in the land.

That was the message doing the rounds yesterday in the media, starting on VG247 and going on to overload Reddit and dozens of other sites. Even Russia’s RT.com got in on the fun.

VG247

Except it’s not fun at all. It’s completely untrue on countless levels and to suggest otherwise puts people at risk. Let’s be absolutely clear here. Copyright infringement, whether that’s on file-sharing networks or elsewhere, is ILLEGAL in the UK. Nothing, repeat NOTHING, has changed.

As detailed in our previous article, VCAP is a voluntary (that’s the ‘V’ part) agreement between some rightsholders and a few ISPs to send some informational letters to people observed infringing copyright.

This means that the mainstream music labels and the major Hollywood studios will soon have an extra option to reach out to UK Internet users. However, whenever they want to – today, tomorrow or next year – any of the copyright holders involved in VCAP can still file a lawsuit or seek police action against ANYONE engaged in illegal file-sharing – FACT.

What makes the original VG247 report even more inaccurate is its headline: “Britain just decriminalised online game piracy.” If we’re still laboring under the illusion that VCAP is somehow the reason behind the government’s “decriminalization” of piracy, understand this – video game companies are not even part of the VCAP program.

Worst still, the biggest financial punishment ever ordered by a UK court was a default judgment in 2008 issued to – wait for it – a person who illegally file-shared a single video game. The case was a farce, but the judgment stands and the law on which it was based has not changed. There is nothing stopping any video game company from doing this again once VCAP starts, properly this time.

But why stop at video games? Porn companies/trolls aren’t involved in the VCAP scheme either and any of those could head off to court to obtain the identities of people they want to sue. It’s happening in the UK. There’s a VCAP-style scheme in the United States too, often referred to as “six strikes”, and that has done nothing to stop companies like Malibu Media filing lawsuits almost every day.

Voluntary agreements avoid the complication of changing the law, that’s their entire point. They offer helpful mechanisms that the law does not already provide. For example, UK ISPs are not expressly required to forward infringement notices to users under current law, yet VCAP means that some rightsholders, not all, will get that ‘right’.

So which other sectors are not involved in VCAP so therefore cannot rely on the assistance it provides? Well, thousands of smaller record labels and film companies for a start. They tend to be outside the walls of the BPI and MPA so do not enjoy the fruits of their lobbying. While these smaller outfits tend to stay away from litigation, they could soon have fresh options.

Piracy monetization firm Rightscorp works with many smaller companies and has recently indicated an interest in the UK. “We are getting a great reception from everyone we have spoken to [in the UK],” the company’s Robert Steele said in May. Whether Rightscorp will be able to pull this off is an entirely different matter, but since file-sharing of copyrighted material remains illegal in the UK, the company has a chance.

The other issue is how the VCAP warnings will be presented to alleged infringers. While they have a focus on education, it would be incredible if they contained the text “The UK has just decriminalized file-sharing, that’s why we have sent you this letter.” It would be even more amazing if the ISPs agreed to pass them on if file-sharing was no longer an offense.

While no laws have been changed, in some instances it’s probably fair to say that VCAP will make it less likely that people will be pursued by the major record labels and movie studios in the UK. It doesn’t eliminate the threat, however.

Try this. Head off to your local Odeon, Showcase or UCI this coming weekend, set up a camcorder, and see if you can get a really sweet copy of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Begin uploading this to The Pirate Bay and while it’s seeding send an email to the Federation Against Copyright Theft containing your personal details.

VCAP friendly letter incoming or a police raid? Yeah, thought so.

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