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Friday, 6 June 2008

Virgin Media gets serious

The IPKat noticed this story today on the Register about Virgin Media and the British Phonographic Institute (BPI) getting together to warn Virgin's broadband customers about their accounts being used for P2P file-sharing. Some customers will be receiving letters from the BPI and Virgin about this, providing them with a kindly-worded warning (a steel fist in a velvet glove, if you like) to the effect that, if they don't stop, their service could be cut off or they could face legal action. The letters, in template form, are available here and here.

While some might complain about this on the grounds, for example, that there are also legitimate uses of P2P file-sharing, or that this is unwarranted intrusion into an internet user's private life, the IPKat tends to agree with the BPI and Virgin on this one. P2P systems such as BitTorrent are, as far as he has been able to work out, almost entirely devoted (if not actively designed) to distributing other people's material (mostly music and video) without making any payment to the rightful copyright owners. There cannot really therefore be any realistic argument that what Virgin is doing is in any way unfair, particularly as the copyright owners have the ability (under s97A of the CDPA) to take out an injunction against ISPs for letting this kind of thing go on. The IPKat would, however, be interested to read of any contrary views.


Paul Jakma said...

Bittorrent is designed to efficiently distribute files. You can't say anything more than about the protocol really. It doesn't care, whatever way, about the licensing arrangements or lack there of, of the data*.

There are many organisations (including large computer corporations) and individuals who use Bittorent to distribute data they are quit entitled to distribute. E.g. CDs/DVDs and other installation media for the various operating systems written by (by and large) "freetards", on which much of the internet infrastructure depends.

It would be unfair to to indiscrimately penalise all users of a copying technology* for the infringing copying*** of some portion of them (be that a substantive portion or not).

* The internet exists precisely to copy information. It does so with unprecedented efficiency. Not surprisingly, people use it to do so**.

** E.g. as the authors of this blog do, by using images copied from across the web to illustrate their articles.

*** Speaking of which I'm still waiting to get a reply as to whether those 3rd party images (some seemingly of commercial stock) are used with appropriate permission.

athurgood said...

Hmm, the Kat doesn't groove with P2P then ? The only reason I use P2P technology is exclusively for downloading open source software, and it has to be said that it is very useful in this regard and also perfectly legal. I'm not going to sound off about why I use open source software, each to his own, as they say, but I remain yet to be convinced that attacking people just because they use P2P software is an effective means to combating software and media piracy. If the broadband providers can demonstrate that the technology is being used to share, in an unauthorised manner, copyrighted or otherwise protected works, then fair enough. If not, then as a client of that ISP I would certainly be reconsidering my subscription with it (fortunately, I don't live in the UK, so I don't have such a Cornelian dilemma). BitTorrent is a useful technology, but like anything else can be abused. If I seed the videos I make of my family events (and those files just get larger and larger), and then use P2P to distribute them, it does not automatically mean I am infringing someone else's rights.

But of course, with an entry such as this, one could inevitably end up waking a troll with a huge appetite...

Jay Daley said...

I think it is a bit unfair to say that is all they were designed for even if that is primarily what they are used for.

There was a genuine concern for some time that P2P was the only way that the Internet would scale and that large files would only be accessible that way. Not just ripped content but upgrades, open source software and the like. At one time it looked as though P2P would be a useful commercial distribution mechanism for this type of content. After all even the BBC spend millions on a P2P network just for that purpose.

What has changed is the growth of content delivery networks (CDN). These can have tens of thousands of servers deployed to as many edges of the Internet as possible. Content is then distributed to them over a private network and they deliver it to the end user.

Some people build their own and some sell a commercial service. But the net effect has been to kill any chance of BitTorrent or the like attracting paid distribution.

Paul Jakma said...

Also, if I download something from P2P that is available in the exact same form on BBC iPlayer, is that infringement?

I ask, because the BBC refuse to make iPlayer content available to non-Windows users (the lower-resolution flash doesn't count). So P2P is the only way I can access such material - presuming I forgot to record the MPEG stream from Freeview..

John H said...

Chalk me up as another open source downloader, as well as being a Virgin Media customer who will be mightily annoyed if he receives a (simultaneously threatening and patronising) letter telling me I'm a criminal for downloading Ubuntu ISO images.

That said, the actual template letters seem to refer to specific tracks that have been shared, so I assume it is specifically music/movie files they are going after rather than taking a blanket approach to all P2P activity.

This is a PR meltdown waiting to happen, though, from Virgin Media's point of view. The process of identifying that someone's internet connection has been used for P2P is far from 100% accurate, as this item from the NYT website shows. Researchers using a Bittorrent network to monitor activities received 400 take-down requests accusing them of illegal file-sharing, despite not sharing any files themselves. The researchers even received DMCA notices in respect of networked printers:

The researchers rigged the software agents to implicate three laserjet printers, which were then accused in takedown letters by the M.P.A.A. of downloading copies of “Iron Man” and the latest Indiana Jones film.

So expect people to receive these letters because they've downloaded free software, or because their teenage children's friends have hooked up to their network with their laptops, or simply because of a "false positive", and so on. It won't reduce the amount of file-sharing by more than a derisory amount, but it will alienate large numbers of Virgin Media's legitimate customers. Same story as for every other attempt the content industries have made to try to stamp out unlicensed downloading.

MTPT said...

Another downloader here: not only of installation ISOs (as with John H), but also music - not pirated, but released for free (or donation-ware) by its creators, many of whom don't have record deals, and couldn't afford the bandwidth for making normal downloads available.

It bears saying that Virgin Media are an abnormal broadband provider, given they are also a content seller - and as such have a vested interest in the enforcement of rights to maintain their market. I'm surprised that's not a point the IPKat (normally so good at spotting motivations) commented on!

John H said...

Here's a wiki page giving a list of legitimate uses for P2P technology.

Matthew Just said...

P2P technologies are neutral in that, as the other commentators mentioned, they can be used for infringing and non-infringing purposes.

The BPI letter is quite an interesting read. It is really rather fluffy and even includes potential defences for any alleged infringer (e.g. the unsecured wireless network was being used by an unknown third party)

Looking that the Virgin Media template, it looks as though the BPI will supply details of specific files (tracks in the template) that have been copied. If this is the case, anyone only downloading open source software through P2P should not receive a letter.

I can understand Virgin's desire not to be a secondary copyright infringer in this context but I wonder how BPI is getting its information. Is Virgin actively sharing its network data? (if so, how does this relate to any privacy agreement in place with the end-user). Or does BPI log into P2P networks and use software to monitor what goes on (and would such activity violate any EULA of the P2P software)?

Food for thought...

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