Last December, the music industry's message to song writers, publishers, and musicians was that antipiracy help was on the way. Hopes soared after the major labels announced that they had convinced a group of telecoms to work with them.
Filing lawsuits against individuals accused of illegal file sharing was, for the most part, a thing of the past, said the Recording Industry Association of America, the trade group representing the top music companies. The new strategy was to enlist Internet service providers, the gatekeepers of the Web, to issue a series of warnings meant to increase pressure on alleged pirates in what the RIAA called a "graduated response." Under the plan, those subscribers who refused to heed warnings could eventually see their Web connection suspended.
Six months later, the music industry is still waiting to hear from the RIAA which ISPs have explicitly agreed to work with the association. When the RIAA first announced its new antipiracy project, it didn't name partners. Behind the scenes, industry insiders assured the media that the group would disclose the names of partner ISPs "within weeks." Six months later, however, not one ISP has publicly acknowledged working with the RIAA on a "graduated response."
That there are still no announced deals--and there's no guarantee the RIAA can sign any of the major broadband companies--indicates that at best the big recording companies may have spoken too soon when they said broadband providers would help, says one ISP executive. Ironically, at a time when many figured the RIAA had finally hit upon a compelling way to go after music piracy, the association's copyright protection efforts may be more toothless than ever.
"(The RIAA) has tried various ways to turn ISPs and other intermediaries into their own Internet cops," said Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group for Internet users. "What the ISPs appear to be saying is that this isn't our job."
To be sure, the RIAA continues to pitch its plan to ISPs, numerous sources have told CNET News. AT&T has launched tests of a graduated response--everything, that is, but service interruption. The telecom said it would never shut off a customer's service without a court order. The recording companies may soon announce some kind of agreement with one of the ISP trade groups. But this won't bind the group's members and the RIAA will still need to strike deals with individual companies.
"We have been working slowly but surely, directly and through the offices of (New York Attorney General Andrew) Cuomo, with virtually every major ISP on common approaches," said Jonathan Lamy, an RIAA spokesman in an e-mail. "During the past six months, a number of different ISPs have forwarded nearly half a million RIAA notices to P2P infringers. They had not done that before last winter. A number of individual ISPs now argue that notices alone are proving to have a sufficient deterrent impact."
What the RIAA seems to be suggesting here is that it doesn't need a threat of service termination for a graduated response to be effective. This, however, conflicts with what music executives say in private. They want a carrot and stick approach. They know they have to offer the public inexpensive and easy-to-use alternatives to illegal peer-to-peer sites. They also believe chronic abusers won't stop without the threat of a serious punitive consequence.
So, why did the RIAA announce the ISP-based program without any ISPs on board so many months ago?
Some RIAA critics have speculated that the December announcement was a smokescreen to cover the music industry's retreat from the 5-year-old and highly controversial strategy of filing copyright lawsuits against individuals accused of copyright violations. The theory goes something like this: the RIAA needed a face-saving way to walk away from the litigation, which resulted in more than 30,000 people being sued, a fortune in legal fees, a huge public relations black eye, and didn't do all that much to stop piracy.
Ernesto, founder of the blog TorrentFreak, which focuses on file sharing, was always skeptical of the RIAA's announcement. He noted that some telecoms have voluntarily sent warning notices to subscribers accused of illegally downloading songs for years, while other companies refused. He says he sees nothing new.
"Yes, the RIAA, MPAA and other outfits do plan to send copyright infringement warnings to ISPs," Ernesto wrote in March, "but they've been doing so for at least half a decade. Every other month these Hollywood lobbyists pitch their antipiracy efforts to the public...this doesn't mean, however, that something is about to change."
According to the ISP executive who asked for anonymity because he's involved in negotiations with the music sector, the RIAA's tactics in dealing with the ISPs have been too heavy handed.
The executive complained that the RIAA has tried to use Andrew Cuomo to push the ISPs into helping. But Cuomo doesn't have the kind of political muscle to sway the major ISPs when they are acting well within the law, the executive said. There's nothing in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that requires ISPs to send their own warning letters to subscribers.
And some ISPs say the DMCA is unclear about when they must terminate service of repeat offenders. AT&T executives say they won't cut off someone's Web access based solely on evidence supplied by the recording industry and will only do so after receiving a court order.
"We keeping hearing about how (Cuomo) is supposed to make this happen," said the executive. "You don't see much changing, do you?
So if Cuomo isn't enough, why don't the music labels appeal to Congress to legislate the ISPs into submission? That's easy. The ISPs have much more influence in Washington than the music sector. There's also little public sympathy for recording stars, who are often perceived to be rolling in money--even if this is a reality for a tiny fraction of working musicians.
In an interview with CNET last week, Paul McGuinness, manager of the rock band U2, says that ISPs have for a long time profited from selling broadband to file sharers and have little interest in taking action without seeing financial reward. But he sees some progress around the globe.
"Perhaps broadband subscription sales are saturated in many territories and the ISPs are belatedly but realistically now turning to building revenue collection businesses with the content owners," McGuinness said. "I just hope it's not too late."
Cohn, from EFF, sees it differently. To her, cutting off someone's Internet connection for file sharing is like refusing to sell shoes to someone accused of jaywalking.
"Every day that passes we realize how important Internet connectivity is to people's lives," Cohn said. "The RIAA looks so out of step with what most people think is a reasonable response to (copyright) infringing behavior. Even to the people that believe we're locked into this 19th century view of copyright law, the RIAA looks hysterical."