Sharing copyrighted material is nothing new--How many people in the days when a cassette recorder was 'high tech' could be found trying to record the top 40 show as it was broadcast over the radio and then listen to it with their friends? Since the invention of digital media and broadband however, it has become possible for users to share digitally perfect copies of music, video and software packages at very low cost using the Internet.
BBC News Online is reporting that the UK government is considering a crack-down on illegal file sharing. It should be noted that the keyword here is 'illegal' the companies and those using it to distribute game patches and up and coming musicians releasing material to try and build a following will not be legislated against. Even the BBC is in on the file sharing game, as iPlayer uses peer-to-peer (p2p) file sharing to distribute material.
The law as it stands seems capable of finding and taking action against those breaking the rules. A Teeside man has been bailed after arrest on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud and infringement of copyright recently. The arrest comes after two years of investigation and reportedly computer equipment was seized from the company where the man worked. Another case a few days earlier involved the arrest of a man in Cheltenham for facilitating copyright infringement. In this case the website TV-Links appears to have acted as an aggregation site for links to content hosted elsewhere that was often in breach of copyright.
The government is calling on service providers to take a more active role in policing illegal file-sharing across their networks. The big problem is identifying what is illegal and what is not. Service providers can generally identify the types of traffic transiting through their network but are normally unable to tell whether it is a Simpsons carton or a homemade movie being shared. Add to this the fact that p2p applications have started to employ encryption and other techniques to get around traffic management systems and the scale of the problem becomes more obvious.
Even if technically providers could identify copyrighted material flowing over their network there is a big question of the cost of hardware required to filter it and the human intervention required to pass information onto law enforcement. Are the large copyright holders in the form of the music and film industry going to finance the cost of tracking their copyrighted material?
Perhaps part of the problem is that the music and film industries are going through the same sort of angst that hit the newspaper industry some years ago when it had to come to terms with this new upstart that is the Internet. When you consider that it is possible to buy the physical album for perhaps a pound or two more than downloading it legally one can hardly wonder why some people look for 'free' material online. The recent cases suggest that there are ways of pursuing those who seek to profit from illegal file sharing. Music and film companies are known for watching p2p networks and sending providers letters to pursue individuals they find sharing material illegally.
At the end of the day p2p networks are themselves not illegal and any legislation would need to be careful to not restrict legitimate uses of these tools, or make the costs of allowing this traffic through a providers network so high they will take the cheap route of blocking it. How much content on these networks is illegally shared is hard to know, but the term 'p2p' is almost synonymous with distribution of copyrighted material in many people's minds. If this was not the case, millions of people are addicted to having the latest and greatest version of Linux.