How to Solve a Problem Like Digital Piracy
What is Digital Piracy?
If you’re not familiar with the definition, this amalgam of a term refers to the act of illegally downloading, streaming, or accessing content online. In legal parlance, it’s an infringement of intellectual property. In common lingo, it is the theft of entertainment.
Maybe the term rings a bell when you think about Napster? The 1999 lawsuit against the peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing site curtailed the growth of music libraries of millions of people. The shutdown of Napster thus kickstarted a litigation campaign against other technology companies, including: Scour, Aimster, AudioGalaxy, Morpheus, Grokster, Kazaa, iMesh, and LimeWire. Yet, the whack-a-mole victories only went so far. P2P applications have been quickly eclipsed by new alternative threats, such as BitTorrent, streaming, and direct download cyberlockers.
The term digital piracy also gained some popularity in the wake of the Recording Industry Association of America (the RIAA)’s lawsuit campaign in 2003. In April of that year, the RIAA sued four college students for developing and maintaining search engines that allowed students to search for and download files from other students on their local campus networks. Ultimately, the students settled the cases for between $12,000 and $17,500 each. Later that year, the RIAA announced 261 more lawsuits against individuals who were sharing music on P2P networks. The lawsuits against these regular Joes, including college students and children, caused an uproar against the music publishing industry for their heavy-handed attacks against fans. 
Studios, production companies, and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) have used similar litigious techniques to protect their rights in their film and television content. For example, in 2007, Viacom sued YouTube alleging that the video site should be held responsible for the copyright infringements of YouTube users. The seven-year battle recently settled, however. Then, in 2011, the U.S. Copyright Group (representing movie studios) went after tens of thousands of “John Does” issuing subpoenas to Internet service providers, including Time Warner Cable and Verizon, for the identities of those users. Other examples include the lawsuits against Megaupload and Isohunt.
Then, of course, there was the legislative movement to pass the bills known as SOPA/PIPA. The Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect Intellectual Property Act were aimed at expanding the ability of U.S. law to combat digital piracy and online trafficking in counterfeit goods. What some touted as expansion, felt more like unprecedented encroachment to others. Unfortunately for content providers, the voice of the protesters was louder than the bills’ supporters. In January 2012, sites like Reddit, Google, Mozilla and Flickr coordinated total website blackouts as a form of online demonstration, in addition to collecting hundreds of thousands of signatures to challenge the proposed legislation. Thereafter, the bills were stopped in their tracks, never making it before the Senate or House. The loss left the entertainment industry outmaneuvered and befuddled.
Copyright vs. Copyleft
This fight – spanning nearly two decades now – has been characterized as pitting content providers vs. service providers, Hollywood vs. Silicon Valley, the Copyright vs. the Copyleft. For the past few years, it seems like the entertainment industry has been the losing party on all sides. Their reported statistics indicate that illegal downloading and streaming of most films ranges from 25% to 100% of their legitimate sales worldwide, and that nearly 30% of internet users in North America patronize pirate sites. Meanwhile, litigation and legislation tactics have failed, and the industry receives constant criticism for being unable to transform their business models to keep up with innovative technologies.
A Creative Future
Two months ago, Hollywood’s antipiracy efforts added a new voice. In February 2014, independent film executive, Ruth Vitale, was named the Executive Director of Creative Future – a coalition of movie and television producers, unions, and companies that are bound by a common determination to get a grip, finally, on Hollywood’s digital future. The organization is successor to Creative America, which was formed three years ago during the SOPA/PIPA effort. Creative Future, however, has a different rallying cry than its forerunner. Instead of lawsuits aimed at fans and sweeping legislation, this coalition aims to pursue voluntary agreements with legitimate companies, enlist the aid of young consumers, and motivate the creative to speak out against piracy.
Since Vitale’s appointment, membership in the coalition has soared. Founding supporters include Fox, Sony, CAA, DGA and SAG, but as of April 8th, the coalition has over 150 members, including Bender/Spink, Cinetel and Legendary Entertainment. There are no initiation fees or dues. The only requirement to membership is a commitment to spreading the word about the scope of the problem, and to work towards finding ways to put an end to the piracy. With an increasing amount of backers, the question then becomes what to do with all that support. In an article by the Hollywood Reporter, Vitale outlined several initiatives.
Enlist the Creatives
One method of awareness is to enlist the creatives to speak out about the value of what they do and the harm caused by piracy. Naturally, the Hollywood elite would be a powerful mouthpiece for marketing the goals and policy of the coalition. But Creative Future wants to motivate creators of all types to take a stance on protecting the value of their work. After all, digital piracy affects all who create for a living, whether they fall above or below the line.
Following the Money and Take the Profit out of Piracy
There are three ecosystems of digital piracy: BitTorrent, video streaming, direct download cyberlockers. The vast majority of all these sites make money through advertising. Frequently, these ads are visible in the form of banners or pop-ups for things like casinos, dating sites, or pornography. Another method of raising revenue is through premium subscription services, where a user pays a fee from $5 to $10 a month to access the content without ads. 
Vitale and Creative Future aim to take the profit out of piracy by establishing voluntary agreements with advertisers, ad agencies, networking companies, digital retailers, and payment processors, like credit card companies. An example of one of these arrangements is the Copyright Alert System, which imposes restrictions on service providers after “six strikes” of suspected copyright infringement. These voluntary agreements can also be characterized as establishing “best practices.” Rather than passing laws, it’s a method of holding both parties to certain standards. Often though, the best practices tend to be “best” for the party drafting them.
A further goal of the coalition is to identify and sponsor initiatives to provide effective messaging and communication to youth. In a way, the goal is to help kids connect the dots: there are consequences of piracy and how it affects everyone on a personal and potentially professional level. One idea is to build alliances with educational nonprofit groups that might enforce the notion that illegally downloading another’s artwork is akin to stealing a classmate’s watercolor project. Outreach to youth now may help shape their attitude to respect another’s work and livelihood rather than just thinking, “eh, it’s just a copy.”
In Creative Future’s infancy, it’s hard to determine how successful the coalition’s efforts will be. But if the group is made up of the same players that once had a part in the lawsuits and legislation from the past two decades, then there are certainly enough powerful members to get the ball rolling.