The UK's music industry body has distanced itself from a law firm's letter-writing campaign demanding cash recompense from people suspected of unlawfully sharing copyrighted files.
ACS:Law has sent thousands of letters to those suspected of unlawfully downloading copyrighted material, demanding immediate payment of hundreds of pounds from each recipient and threatening legal action if they do not pay. On Friday, the BPI said in a statement that it did not condone this approach.
"We don't favour the approach taken by ACS:Law to tackling illegal file-sharing, which is at odds with the proportionate and graduated response advocated by BPI and proposed in the Digital Economy Bill," the statement read. "We uphold the highest standards of evidence, and our view is that legal action is best reserved for the most persistent or serious offenders — rather than widely used as a first response."
Although the BPI used the term 'illegal' in relation to file-sharing, such activity is more rightly termed 'unlawful', as it is not a criminal offence but a civil matter.
One ACS:Law letter released by consumer organisation Which? tells a suspected unlawful file-sharer to pay £625 within five weeks, or face a court case for damages plus costs.
The law firm represents content rights holders ranging from games companies to record labels. It uses software that tracks file-sharing sites to identify the IP address of suspected unlawful file-sharers, then uses court orders to get ISPs to link those IP addresses to their customers, after which the letters are sent.
This approach stands in contrast with that proposed in the Digital Economy Bill, which wants warning letters to be sent before any technical measures are used to combat unlawful file-sharing.
A BPI spokesman said on Friday that the organisation does support the sending of letters, but "as notifications, as outlined in the Digital Britain proposals".
On Tuesday, Which? issued a statement saying it had heard from more than 150 people who believed they had been wrongly accused.
"My 78-year-old father yesterday received a letter from ACS law demanding £500 for a porn file he is alleged to have downloaded," one consumer is quoted by Which? as writing. "He doesn't even know what file-sharing or BitTorrent is, so has certainly not done this himself or given anyone else permission to use his computer to do such a thing."
Matt Bath, head of technology at the consumer organisation, said in the statement that "innocent consumers are being threatened with legal action for copyright infringements they not only haven't committed, but wouldn't know how to commit", and voiced concerns that many people would be "frightened into paying up rather than facing the stress of a court battle".
Most people who receive such letters are not sued, according to solicitor Michael Coyle of Lawdit, who represents hundreds of recipients. He pointed out that recipients cannot be forced to pay without a claim being formally issued by the rights holder in court.
"Talking very generally, the only way people can be found liable of copyright infringement is in a court, and you have to admit it," Coyle told ZDNet UK on Friday. "If you don't admit it, it can only be found on the hard drive. There's no-one to test the [IP address-identifying] software in court [and relying on] an IP address is at best a wee bit circumspect."
Coyle added that, to his knowledge, no-one has yet launched a challenge to any court-issued claim that followed ACS:Law's letters.