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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Copyright Owners Continue to Tilt at Windmills

Posted By on Tue, Feb 21, 2012 at 12:00 PM

click to enlarge digitaltremorsheader_1.jpg

Given the intensity of the debates over digital piracy, you'd almost think that if one side or the other were to "win," the question would be decided: If critics of copyright holders were victorious, piracy would run rampant and the media industry would be brought to its knees; if the copyright owners were victorious, piracy would no longer be a problem.

Actually, though, the question has already been decided. Piracy is here to stay. Current laws can be enforced to reduce the harm and make illegal acts more expensive and therefore more rare, as was done in the Megaupload case. And media companies can reform their business practices to account for the fact that some of their products will be illicitly shared -- for instance, by making more of their products available to more people more conveniently and at lower prices.

Slowly, but surely, that's happening, which is why we have Netflix, iTunes, and the rest. But the media industry isn't anywhere near where it should be on that score, mainly because of its own resistance to change (this Oatmeal cartoon sums up the situation as well as any written treatise could.) Even as media companies continue to make things as difficult as possible for its own customers (when it's not suing them), it is also spending enormous sums of money, time and energy on trying to get new laws passed that won't do any good and could potentially do all kinds of harm.

In the latest such case since the (presumed) downfall of SOPA/PIPA -- the effort by the U.S. media industry and its congressional allies to block access to foreign sites deemed to be offering pirated materials -- the UK appears to be getting ready to block access to The Pirate Bay.

The country's High Court ruled that the site "breaches copyright laws on a large scale," as the Guardian puts it. That's true. But blocking users from accessing it is not only pointless, it's potentially harmful for the same reasons that SOPA and PIPA would have been harmful. Blocking access to parts of the Internet is the worst possible approach to combating piracy, not only because of the technical problems it could cause, but also because it targets users and innocent third parties rather than the people who are profiting from piracy.

If the UK blocks The Pirate Bay, the Pirate Bay will still exist. And it will still be accessible even by people in the UK, as Mike Masnick of TechDirt points out. Such an action "seems totally pointless," he writes, "because the site can (and will) spring up with its entire same contents on another domain (or many, many domains) minutes after such a block is in place. It's not just a game of wack-a-mole, it's encouraging more moles and more holes. It makes you wonder what the point of this really would be."

The point seems to be to tilt at windmills. Even if The Pirate Bay were shut down altogether, something else would quickly replace it, because it's possible and simple. Copyright owners will simply have to get used to this fact, and adjust to it.

Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, the New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, and many others.

Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly

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Dan Mitchell

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