In bid to halt digital piracy, anything goes
From lawsuits to old-fashioned guilt trips, the entertainment industry is continuing to unsheath more weapons in its fight to stamp out digital piracy.Skip to next paragraph
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This week has seen a flurry of court actions and tentative new tactics by media conglomerates determined to stop what they call the wholesale looting of movies, music, and TV shows - sometimes months before they're available for sale.
For an industry facing billions in losses, the transition from the analogue to the digital era has not been easy. But all this activity reveals that a vast network of companies is determined to figure out how to make people pay for what is easily, if illegally, available free of charge. There are also signs that the industry is coming to recognize that total eradication of piracy is likely not possible, nor perhaps even reasonable.
Ultimately, says Rob Atkinson of the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, the industry will devise a workable new business model, "because most Americans realize you have to pay in some way for things you consume."
How entertainment consumers will buy music, movies, and TV shows in the future is what is being worked out now. Some of the court actions and industry initiatives that emerged over the past several days provide clues to what the entertainment marketplace of the future might look like:
• Last Friday, courts handed down two decisions, one for and one against the entertainment industry. A federal court ruled that Grokster and Morpheus, two of the biggest file-sharing sites, cannot be shut down because they cannot be expected to control what moves through their system, even if the material is copyrighted. In another federal court, a judge ruled against Verizon Communications, forcing it to divulge the name of a customer accused of illegally circulating copyrighted music. And in a still-pending lawsuit, a California court will decide if a company can sell software that allows users to copy DVDs.
• On Tuesday, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) began a week-long campaign sending instant messages to anyone downloading copyrighted music from file-sharing Internet sites. The messages are part of what the RIAA calls its "educational outreach" to tell the file sharers that they are not anonymous, that they "risk legal penalties," and that their actions hurt songwriters, musicians, and all music industry employees.
• On Monday, Apple Computer launched what reviewers are already calling the first "really useful and enjoyable, legal" online music service, iTunes Music Store (www.applemusic.com). For 99 cents a song and no monthly fees, users can create their own CDs.
The industry has been fighting the battle wherever it can: in the courts and college dean's offices, with computer manufacturers, and even in people's personal instant messages. Arrayed against it are not only the pirates, but a wide variety of voices in support of keeping the Internet free. For these companies, the stakes are simply too high to shrug off: The music industry estimates it loses some $3 billion annually to piracy.
Even consumers who don't know a Gnutella from a Kazaa and have never downloaded anything are not safe from the industry's counterattacks. Throughout this month, high-profile actors such as Ben Affleck and Cameron Diaz will headline public service announcements shown in local movie theaters, pleading with moviegoers not to steal from movie industry employees by downloading movies for free.
Given the public's keen awareness of movie stars' multimillion-dollar salaries, this last tactic might backfire, says Drew Borst, an industry analyst with Bernstein & Co in New York. Public attitudes toward the entertainment industry as a whole are crucial in winning support for curbs on digital piracy. For example, when Madonna scolded downloaders on her just-released album, a hacker promptly attacked her website, creating free, downloadable copies of every song.