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Copyright Alert System: Six strikes and you're out

This week the entertainment industry and American ISPs rolled out a system that aims to curb illegal media downloads. The system is designed to first notify users of copyright infringement, and then to curtail Internet connectivity in response to repeated offenses.

By Contributor / February 27, 2013

The Copyright Alert System is designed as a "six-strikes" scheme to curb illegal downloads. In this Youtube video, the Center for Copyright Information shows how the system sends information about infringement to a user's ISP.

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The "Copyright Alert System," a six-part warning scheme aimed at curbing illegal downloads of music and movies, rolled out this week with the support of the "big five" American Internet providers -- AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner, and Cablevision. The system is designed to gradually warn, and eventually penalize, those suspected of pirating content over peer-to-peer networks.

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Jeff began writing for the Monitor's Horizons blog in 2011, covering product news and rumors, innovations from companies like Apple and Google, and developments in tech policy.

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The entertainment industry has been grappling with the question of how to curb illegal downloads for years now -- since the days of the Napster downloading proto-service, in fact. The "six strikes" policy is the result of cooperation between film and recording industry representatives and American ISPs, and is designed to educate downloaders about copyright infringement, rather than suing or fining suspected pirates.

Here's how the system operates: when a content owner -- say, a movie studio -- detects that its work is being shared on a peer-to-peer network, it makes a note of the IP address that's sharing the file and contacts the ISP that services that address. The ISP then notifies the user with that IP address about the apparent copyright infringement. "Initial alerts are merely educational, letting the user know that unauthorized content sharing was detected on their Internet account," explains the Center for Copyright Information in a video.

Repeated infringement, though, will cause you to run afoul of two "additional alert levels." The first, the CCI says, is "acknowledgement": a user has to fill out a form stating that they've received repeated notices of copyright infringement. The second step is the ominously-named "mitigation," in which the user's ISP reduces the account's connection speed or takes other slightly-punitive measures. (Strangely, the CCI offers "watch[ing] an educational video" as an appropriate alternative to performing both steps.) Customers who have been wrongly accused can appeal the mitigation step, though submitting an appeal costs $35.

The mitigation measures are left up to ISPs, who have been largely mum on the Copyright Alert System so far. Only Verizon has mentioned the program on its website, and it says that while it won't terminate the service of users who received six strikes, it will reduce access speed to something "a little faster than typical dial-up speed" for two to three days. Dara Kerr, writing for CNET, notes that termination of service isn't part of the "mitigation" step, although the other four ISPs haven't made clear statements to that effect yet. And although the program withholds personal information from content owners, it doesn't shield users from legal action -- meaning you could still be sued for downloading copyrighted material.

The Copyright Alert System has been planned since 2011 and was supposed to take effect at the end of 2012, but a series of hurdles -- including Hurricane Sandy -- delayed its implementation until this week.

What's your take on this system? Does it seem like a fair way for content owners to protect their copyrights, or does the alert system punish downloaders too harshly? Let us know in the comments section below.

For more tech news, follow Jeff on Twitter: @jeffwardbailey.

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