When Cameron Slater, a colourful New Zealand blogger travelling online as Whale Oil, accused Kim Dotcom’s new online privacy company of facilitating the pirating of Booker Award winning novel The Luminaries last week, people were quick to pile on and condemn Dotcom's new website.
But perhaps they were too quick.
The accusor has been fisked by an online posse who have questioned and analysed the evidence and found it wanting. But while Whale Oil may have been forced onto the back flipper, the truth remains is elusive.
Whale Oil said it is probably impossible to control piracy these days.
“But to have Kim Dotcom, a cheerleader for New Zealand and his ‘New Zealand’ company Mega essentially provide a platform for people to distribute a fellow Kiwi’s hard work – and a Booker Prize winning one at that, well… it’s not on.
“It is a clear example of why he can’t just sit there and claim no responsibility for any of it. His Mega service clearly aids and abets the stealing of copyrighted works, thereby denying the artists and publishers of their well earned income.”
The New Zealand Publishers’ Association was quick to climb in saying it was disappointing a New Zealand registered company was involved.
“Everyone is rightly proud of the achievements of Eleanor Catton on the world stage so to see her work given away without her consent by a fellow Kiwi company is really appalling,” Publishers Association of New Zealand president Sam Elworthy said in a statement..
“We should be doing all we can to support the good work of not only these two artists but also every New Zealander who makes an honest living from his or her creative works.
“Mega should do more to ensure this kind of thing does not occur.”
Catton's publisher Fergus Barrowman, from Victoria University Press, expressed his disappointment as well. And the media followed.
Then another blogger, Public Address’s Russell Brown, chimed in, noting some oddities in the story so far.
According to Mega CEO Vikram Kumar, he said, the infringing e-book file has only been accessed by the same customer who uploaded it. That customer, Kumar said, registered with a throwaway email address.
“Kumar says Mega was able to identify the file URL from the Whale Oil blog post, even though it was partially obscured. But where did Whaleoil get it from?" Brown asked.
“As I understand the Mega service, it’s not possible to discover such a URL unless you have created it – that is, if you are the uploader – or it has been advertised to you by the uploader, who wishes to share the file.
“So there’s the two ways that Slater could have got the link on which he based his story.”
That was where the crowd picked the matter up in 174 comments at the time of writing.
Kumar explained how Mega had located the file and the account given Mega’s encryption and claims to privacy.
In another comment, Kumar wrote the Victoria University Press’s release was based on Whale Oil’s blog post. It appeared, he said, VUP did not download or independently confirm the alleged copyright infringement.
VUP publisher Barrowman responded:
“In the interest of transparency, the press release was ‘Issued for Publishers Association of NZ by Pead PR’, and was different from the draft I approved,” he said. “And no, we didn’t attempt to download the files or confirm the alleged infringement.”
Meanwhile, Whale Oil denied any suggestion he had uploaded the file.
“I’ll repeat again Russell [Brown] for your benefit since you seem slow on the uptake. I [didn’t] upload the book to Mega.
“And again for your benefit and for all the enablers of Dotcom…I will not be revealing my source or details of how I came by the story.”
So who to believe, Whale Oil or Kumar?
Mega’s Bram van der Kolk posted on Twitter that although Slater was talking about protecting his “source” for the story, his original post claimed that he found the infringing file by dint of just “a bit of poking around on the internet”.
Brown said the two positions didn’t tally.
Another commentor said you have to poke pretty deep on the internet to find any pirate links to Mega.
“It really doesn’t seem to be a popular service for such activities.”
Kumar said the stats speak for themselves: 435 million files uploaded to Mega in nine months, of which 0.05% received a notice of alleged copyright infringement.
But Copyright Licensing NZ has taken issue with Mega on another front, claiming it found an educational text on the site. It said it had issued takedown notices.
And that’s the rub. With Safe Harbour provisions that protest providers of online services from responsibility for their users' infringements, the issue really comes down to how Mega responds to such takedown notices.
Kumar said it responds promptly.
Meanwhile, Mega and Dotcom, still fighting extradition by US authorities, appear to be embedding themselves as part of the fabric of New Zealand's online world.