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Six Strikes and You're Out: Can a New RIAA Policy Solve Old Online File Sharing Problems?

by Ian Birrell

Thumbnail-Ian-Birrell.jpgSince at least 1999 when Napster was originally launched, internet piracy, or downloading copyrighted materials (especially songs, videos, and games,) has been a contentious activity. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has historically taken a very public and aggressive stance by finding individuals associated with IP addresses matching those where this "file sharing" is coming from. After finding such a target, the RIAA would send a letter demanding a settlement for thousands of dollars or threatening litigation, risky and expensive to the target, despite a potentially very small monetary value of downloaded material. The RIAA suits, which have continued for a number of years, include a number of well publicized absurd claims.

This journal has written on the RIAA policies before. In 2008, we published a student note by Daniel Reynolds named The RIAA Litigation War on File Sharing and Alternatives more Compatible with Public Morality. Reynolds argued then that the policies were ineffective and unconscionable and urged change.

Change is coming. Later this year, after a number of years in development, a number of major carriers are planning to institute a "six-strikes" plan. This is a voluntary agreement between ISPs and certain content providers (the government is not involved,) and is made to target peer-to-peer downloading. The plan has a notice phase, an acknowledgement phase, and a mitigation phase. Under the plan, a private carrier - say, Time Warner - will first notify a user that there has been an allegation of illegal copyright activity, then force a user who may be infringing (and who may or may not own the account) to acknowledge having received such notices, before the user finally suffers consequences. These consequences can include throttling of internet speed or having popular websites blocked.

Proponents point to a few positives under this proposal, including the user's right to appeal to an independent arbitrator (for a $35 fee.) Additionally, though lawsuits are still permitted by copyright holders, the hope is that the system will educate the public about copyright infringement and that, on notice that their behavior is illegal, infringement will at least slow down. Ron Wheeler, a Senior VP at Fox, said that, "This system is not designed to produce lawsuits--it's designed to produce education."

Unfortunately, a lack of education may not be the underlying problem. Reynolds noted that, even in 2004, awareness of the (il)legality of file sharing was widespread. And increasing awareness may not sharply decrease infringement. Critics further note that, despite the safeguards, penalties are ultimately based on accusations rather than definite findings of infringement. If the system ultimately works, though, it may be worth the headaches for both sides. Consumers will not be able to infringe (as much) but the public will also not suffer suits against twelve-year-olds for sharing music.