Last week, two very interesting events happened in the world of copyright and content piracy. First, the Pirate Bay, the infamous torrent hosting site, was raided by police and removed from the Internet. Pirate Bay co-founder Peter Sunde (who was no longer involved with the project) expressed his indifference to the raid; there was no soul left in the site, he said, and in any case, he is “pretty sure the next thing will pan out.”
Second, a leaked trove of emails from the Sony hack showed that the MPAA continues to pursue their dream of blocking websites that contribute to copyright infringement. With the failure of SOPA in 2012, the lobbying organization has pivoted to trying to accomplish the same ends through other means, including paying for state attorneys-general to attack Google for including some of these sites in their index. Over at TechDirt, Mike Masnick argues that some of this activity may have been illegal.
I’ll leave the illegality of the MPAA’s lobbying strategy for federal prosecutors to sort out, but like some others, I am astonished by the MPAA’s lack of touch with reality. They seem to believe that opposition to SOPA was a fluke, whipped up by Google, who they will be able to neutralize through their “Project Goliath.” And according to a meeting agenda reported on by TorrentFreak, they want to bring “on board ‘respected’ people in the technology sector to agree on technical facts and establish policy support for site blocking.”
The reality is that opposition to SOPA-style controls continues to remain strong in the tech policy community. The only people in Washington who support censoring the Internet to protect copyright are paid by Hollywood. If, through their generous war chest, the MPAA were able to pay a “respected” tech-sector advocate to build policy support for site blocking, that very fact would cause that person to lose respect.
Moreover, on a technical level, the MPAA is fighting a battle it is sure to lose. As Rick Falkvinge notes, the content industry had a unique opportunity in 1999 to embrace and extend Napster. Instead, it got Napster shut down, which eventually led to decentralized piracy over bittorrent. Now, it wants to shut down sites that index torrents, but torrent indexes are tiny amounts of data. The whole Pirate Bay index was only 90MB in 2012, and a magnet link for an individual torrent is only a few bytes. Between Bitmessage and projects like Bitmarkets, it seems extremely unlikely that the content industry will ever be able to shut down distribution of torrent data.
Instead of fighting this inevitable trend, the MPAA and RIAA should be trying to position themselves well in a world in which content piracy will always be possible. They should make it convenient for customers to access their paid content through bundling deals with companies like Netflix and Spotify. They should accept some background level of content piracy and embrace at least its buzz-generating benefits. They should focus on soft enforcement through systems like six strikes, which more gently nudge consumers to pay for content. And they should explicitly disavow any effort to censor the web—without such a disavowal, they are making enemies not just of tech companies, but of the entire community of tech enthusiasts and policy wonks.