Are there any good guys in the BitTorrent-'Hurt Locker' fight?

Enforcing the laws of this country is the responsibility of the government, though in the case of copyright infringement, the people wronged often have to pursue the culprits themselves. And it’s funny how far behind the ball copyright enforcement is these days.

The big news of the week is that 50,000 people who allegedly downloaded “The Hurt Locker” from BitTorrent sites are being sued by Voltage Pictures, which produced the Academy Award winning film.

I have a real problem with the way the lawsuit is being prosecuted, but little doubt that most of the people targeted are actually guilty.

Still, given how easy it is to spoof an IP address, some of the people being sought are certainly clean. A few may not even own a computer. And I’ve seen cases where hackers use the IP address (how the lawyers are finding people) of a laser printer at a college to conduct their business, whereupon the printer is threatened with being sued. I almost feel bad for the printer in those cases.

But what really surprises me is how long it took the movie industry to wake up to the problem of online copyright infringement. Case in point: back in the days of Napster, the music industry went nuts over the fact that copyrighted music was being freely traded online. And in 2001, the service was shut down by court order.

I thought that might be the end of it, but another reviewer who worked at GCN at the time showed me an early BitTorrent-type site, where users provide space on their hard drives to host files, and in return have access to files on other user’s drives. The files can be downloaded in pieces, with different parts coming from multiple sources, called streams. This makes downloading faster than normal as long as the file is properly assembled when it’s done.

But what I saw amazed me back in 2001. Almost all the movies that ever existed were available. And the traffic numbers showed that they were being actively swapped by the thousands. I asked the other reviewer, “Does the industry know about this?” but he just laughed.

I found it odd that everyone would go after Napster when this was going on and nobody knew anything about it. I felt like I was invited into an old speakeasy, an illegal party where anything goes.

It seems the industry knows all about it now, though it only took them a decade to catch up. Still, I don’t see the logic of going after 50,000 individual users when they could go after BitTorrent.

The company’s excuse that “we only provide the tools and don’t care what people do with them” is pretty flimsy. Gun companies that make Saturday Night Specials have been successfully sued for creating the tools to commit crime, and this does not seem all that different.

If BitTorrent wanted to, it would be a simple process to keep copyrighted material, especially movies with known signatures, from moving through BitTorret’s protocols. Just because they look the other way does not make them innocent, at least in my book.

But the lawsuit in this case is ham-fisted and borders on illegal itself. Letters are sent to anyone who allegedly took “The Hurt Locker” bait, with the names behind the IP address provided to the lawyers by helpful ISPs such as Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner and Earthlink, which seem happy to throw their users under the bus when they could just as easily use the BitTorrent defense of “we only provide the tools for…blah, blah, blah.”

Apparently, only Time Warner is putting up a fight.

Anyway, the letter informs people that they can settle out of court for $2,000 or fight a lawsuit that will end up costing them $100,000 or more. Isn’t that what Al Capone’s boys did in Chicago, selling protection? Most people probably choose to pay the fine.

Torrent-friendly site TorrentFreak calculates that if only a fifth of the people pay up, it will amount to $20 million in revenue, which is not bad for a movie that only grossed $17 million at the box office. TorrentFreak’s advice to the accused is to wipe the movie out if someone did download it, and then force Voltage Pictures to prove they are guilty of a crime.

The fact your IP address was used is not enough evidence to convict you, at least according to TorrentFreak. They reason that if enough people choose to fight, that the lawsuit idea as currently implemented will become unprofitable. The lawyers just want to collect their money without a fight, and without amassing any additional fees beyond postage.

That’s kind of giving advice to criminals, but the lawsuit itself seems like an extortion attempt following an entrapment scheme (the studio posted the movie itself, hoping someone would download it) so I’m torn over who is in the right on this one.

The ultimate answer may be that technology and economics has outpaced BitTorrent altogether for downloading or otherwise watching movies. You can rent a DVD from those RedBox booths in the supermarket for a dollar. Or you can get all the Netflix streaming movies you want right on your PlayStation 3 for a monthly free. You can even do it old school through Blockbuster and pay a small fee to have movies mailed postage-free to your home.

There simply isn’t a need to pirate movies anymore. Anyone with the slightest bit of income can access the content legally, either as a physical copy or digitally. So pony up a little bit of dough and avoid this ridiculous fight filled with unsavory characters.


About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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