Histories – RIAA vs You

Welcome to DisCONNECT’s first article for 2011! I suppose I haven’t done much except review things and bitch about Apple, so perhaps it’s time to pull out the old Histories segment and take a look at the only true evil corporations out there (according to the Internets) – The RIAA.

Yeah, the recording industry have consistently demonstrated that they’re unwilling (or unable) to get with the times and tirelessly fight their war on piracy. Whether you think they’re right or wrong isn’t important here… because this is my blog and what I say goes! Or to be less sarcastic and more diplomatic, I’m only going to cover their actions here and try to leave a bit of the ethics out of it. Unfortunately when discussing something like this, there will always be ethical considerations thrown out, so we’ll have to tread there eventually. Oh, my source for this is the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s whitepaper published in 2008, except without the pages and pages of information.

Firstly, understand that picking up the physical CD and running out the door is entirely different to downloading the song, but it doesn’t work in either side’s favour. Taking the physical product is theft. Copying a file without permission is copyright infringement. They’re two entirely different crimes. If you copied that CD without permission, then you’d have also committed copyright infringement. Now the RIAA’s logic is that by committing copyright infringement with P2P applications you’re acting both as a distributor and a downloader. With protocols like BitTorrent, there’s no possible way to get around it; you MUST share, even if it’s only a little bit. That’s why the fines are so high; you’ve contributed and entire/parts of the copy which has gone to other people, so their losses are said to be larger than if you’d just taken a CD and kept it at home without any copying. Whether or not you agree doesn’t matter, I’m just pointing out the difference.

With that out of the way, let’s begin our history lesson.

The first method of attack for the industry was to attack the protocols. This is pretty normal; there’s always been a bit of rage about home recording devices, like tape recorders or VCRs. The P2P revolution was no different. I’m sure we all remember Napster from the late 90s early 2000s, and how it was famously neutered and turned into some stupid paid service. Kazaa was another one to bite the dust. Most of these systems however worked based on having a central server (or cluster of servers) to connect users and list files. Obviously taking down such a system is pretty easy; remove the servers, and the system is gone. BitTorrent, the modern P2P protocol, works somewhat similar with its tracker system (that lists all the clients for a particular torrent) but it can also operate without the tracker (in such a system the peers act as the tracker). Attacking the tech often results in outright failure, because tech is just tech, especially something like a P2P protocol which has legitimate uses as well as illegal uses (BitTorrent powers Blizzard’s patch distribution service for example). Although the RIAA could shut down groups like Napster, and they could go after torrent tracker sites (with varying rates of success), at the end of the day the VCR still survived, and the protocols still survived (well, more or less).

So what did the RIAA do? They decided to go after you and me instead.

The RIAA (or any anti-P2P group) could connect to a tracker or set up fake accounts/trackers/whatever and grab a whole bunch of IP addresses. If they’re connected to the tracker, or if they’re requesting that file, then it’d be pretty hard to deny that they wanted the illegal content. The problem is that an IP on its own tells you pretty much nothing except what ISP it belongs to and maybe its geographical region. Contrary to popular opinion by the internet paranoid Facebook lovers, your IP is not a magical number that reveals your tax file number or something. So the RIAA now had lists of IPs, mostly from people who were uploading, but without the owner of the IP blocks (the Internet Service Providers) releasing info, they couldn’t actually find the people who were tied to that IP. They decided to subpoena the ISPs thanks to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA, the worst piece of legislation ever) which forced the ISPs to hand over details on IPs flagged as being suspected of copyright infringement. That’s “suspected”, not “confirmed with evidence.” It’s a glaring breach of privacy, but they managed to do it anyway, and a few lawsuits were issued in 2003. To their credit the ISPs did put up a fight but they initially lost the battle. A judge had their head screwed on right though because the decision to make their tactics legal was overturned in late 2003, essentially halting the Party Train to Lawsuit Land.

The RIAA also started the practice of sending threatening letters in 2003, which is what we most commonly see today. Most people today, when caught on a tracker, receive an email forwarded by their ISP. Sometimes it gives you instructions (which 90% of the time you can safely ignore), other times it’s just addressed to your ISP and says “Well.. do something about it!” while your ISP goes “No, lol.” Letters on the other hand are far more serious and worth worrying about. More concerning at the time though was the blatant attempts at blackmail from some providers who would request obscene amounts of money or they’d start public lawsuits and name everyone who refused to pay. The EEF’s whitepaper mentions a gay pornography group playing this game. What the hell was someone supposed to do? Pay up and shut up, or do nothing and get named as a homosexual? In any case the threats were posted with sums of money attached (and they weren’t cheap), and if refused they would sue you pretty much without exception. This led to plenty of false catches and morally questionable actions, like suing a little girl for obscene amounts of cash. The RIAA didn’t care though until the court put the brakes on.

So the RIAA were sitting there on their derailed train, wondering how best to proceed. They still had IP addresses, they just didn’t have names. They couldn’t get the ISPs to give up the names, so they decided to take a different tactic: sue Somebody and then subpoena the ISP to release the details of Somebody. These “John Doe” lawsuits worked like this: they’d collect IP addresses of suspected infringing connections and essentially sue the unidentified person in court, in the process asking the court to allow them to demand that ISPs release the details. If allowed, the RIAA would then go ahead and amend the lawsuit with the user’s name, or they’d send a letter demanding settlement.

It’s slightly better than the old method because the RIAA weren’t exploiting a loophole allowing them to simply grab details without rhyme or reason, but it amounted to the same thing. From 2004 right up until today this is more or less how the RIAA plays their game. Of course lawsuits are a lot less common than the RIAA originally intended them to be, but it’s small comfort for most of us. Today you’re more likely to see anti-P2P groups like BayTSP sending out threatening emails demanding sums of money for some reason. In fact following these directions probably opens you up to further litigation; you’re not only paying them lots of money for no good reason, but you might be confirming that you actually did partake in copyright infringement. Remember these notices are sent out without any sort of legal proceedings behind them.

What were the results of the lawsuits? Pretty much nothing. Most people chose to settle without a fight. Those who did fight were met with mixed success. The RIAA lawsuits are pretty hit and miss. Some people get crushed, some people get out of it. In any case though the continued proliferation of P2P activities has clearly shown that the lawsuits are entirely ineffective at being a deterrent, and they don’t even make that much money for the RIAA in the end anyway. With the entire thing being such a colossal waste of time, you have to wonder why they simply don’t look for an alternative method to make money. P2P filesharing will never be stopped, just the same way as they couldn’t stop VCRs or tape recorders from ending up in every home.

The RIAA however will always go after you and me. We’re the end of the line, and they have nowhere else to go.

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