Megaupload takedown shows need for fresh debate

Megaupload takedown shows need for fresh debate

Summary: The copyright debate is in a downward spiral, and the only way out is for both sides to come clean about their views

TOPICS: Security

The takedown of Megaupload and the gutting of SOPA have made for a dramatic week in the great copyright-versus-technology debate, but they may also mark a good time for that debate to change form.

Megaupload was the second-most popular 'cyberlocker' service, going by TorrentFreak's rankings in August last year. Now it's gone — not at the hands of the stalled SOPA and PIPA or any other new laws, but thanks to existing legislation, chiefly the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) and racketeering laws.

Cue outrage from easily outraged hackers, who responded by attacking the FBI and the Department of Justice, as well as other parties embroiled in the mess, such as Universal Music Group. So far, so predictable. But the Megaupload takedown and associated arrests could and should provide an opportunity for a fresh start in the bad-tempered, increasingly polarised copyright debate.

Now would be a good time for those calling for copyright reform to get off the defensive.

Unified standpoint

The debate is dysfunctional for many reasons, but this is the big one: people have different ideas of what copyright should entail and how it should be enforced, but right now, only one side comes at the debate from a unified standpoint. Unfortunately for the other side, this argument is wielded by wealthy organisations reacting to the potential of the internet to destroy their business model.

Copyright symbol

The copyright debate is in a downward spiral, and the only way out is for both sides to come clean about their views.

The rights-holder lobby is very powerful, and it strikes first. It donates money to politicians, it has a lot of well-paid and very clever lobbyists, and it offers an argument that at least has the appearance of coherence.

According to this argument, so-called piracy is causing huge losses to the film and music industries. In the case of Megaupload, the supposed losses totalled "well in excess of $500m [£321m]", despite the fact that those charged are only accused of raking in profits coming to "more than $175m".

According to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) (PDF), "more than $58bn is lost to the US economy annually due to content theft". Therefore, the argument goes, anything and everything needs to be done, as urgently as possible, to stem this haemorrhaging of revenue.

"But no," the other side says, "Those figures are suspiciously high. Where did you get them?" As it turns out, the MPAA figures come from a study that used shaky 'multiplier' methodology to come to its conclusions. And so, we are back to square one, and as usual no one is the wiser as to the real extent of the damage.

Never-ending squabble

The never-ending squabble over damage estimates is symptomatic of the debate as a whole. The rights-holders push, then the other side pushes back. It never goes the other way round.

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Pushing back can be very effective, as this week's co-ordinated anti-SOPA website blackout — or "strike", as we would call it in the offline world — demonstrated. In a less harmonised way, constant pressure over ACTA also made sure the trade agreement ended up being far less scary than it might otherwise have been.

But where are the organised, proactive moves against the copying-is-theft, cut-them-off brigade? Could those outside the industry agree on less Draconian new measures? Do existing legal mechanisms such as those used against Megaupload in the US and Newzbin2 in the UK represent an acceptable status quo, or do they need to be scaled back? These are the questions that need to be urgently addressed by those seeking to defend online freedoms.

Part of the problem is, I am sorry to say, an intellectually dishonest streak that pervades much of the anti-rights-holder side. It is a strain of thought — or perhaps lack thereof — that says file-sharers can only be victims, and that discounts any type of copyright enforcement at all.

Artists losing out

Can people at least agree that artists are losing out because of copyright infringement? Leaving aside the methodologies for calculating that loss, I believe they can. After all, the rights-holder lobby does represent real artists, as well as corporate bosses. This constant clamour for reform has at least some genuine grassroots support.

'Theft' is not an accurate description of copying, because copying does not involve making the original item disappear.

The problem is real, and it has many causes. On one hand, these causes include unstoppable technological progress and a seeming unwillingness on the part of the rights-holder industry to embrace that technology rather than fight it. On the other hand, however, are factors that include people who knowingly and actively profit off the copyrighted works of other people.

Rights-holders are, some of the time, fighting against bad guys. Much of the sharing culture is by definition altruistic, but those who make millions off cyberlockers and other file-sharing services are not doing it for the common good. I loathe the term 'online piracy' for its inaccurate characterisation of what is often well-meaning sharing, but I believe it applies here in spirit. These people are the real pirates of the online world, and not the jolly sort.

Equally, 'theft' is not an accurate description of copying, because copying does not involve making the original item disappear. However, it is hard not to get a sense of thievery when huge amounts of cash are involved.

Those fighting against rights-holders and trying to win over under-informed legislators have to be honest about the problem, and about their motivations. I do not believe...

Topic: Security

David Meyer

About David Meyer

David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't pay the bills. David's main focus is on communications, as well as internet technologies, regulation and mobile devices.

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  • That's sad...since it's all BS...SOPA/PIPA were junk + MU arrest was unfair + I don't think swizz he has any legal connections to MU...imo it was all fabbed up to get other celebrity endorsements.

    p.s. looks like someone is pissed - FBI vs ANONYMOUS video:
  • "an intellectually dishonest streak that pervades much of the anti-rights-holder side. It is a strain of thought — or perhaps lack thereof — that says file-sharers can only be victims"

    Since when? I have never heard this ever! Being a rights-holder and someone who opposes anti-piracy laws too, I have never once heard this statement from either side. And classing those who oppose anti-paricy laws as "anti-rights holders" is just stupid.

    Many of the people who the rights really belong to, "the artists" are in fact in favor of piracy and oppose SOPA, it's only the Record labels and movie studios that give a shit! The artists understand the important part that free sharing of the material actually generates more fans.
  • It's not often that one sees such a rational and balanced article on this subject. I heartily endorse your reasoning and conclusions.

    However, you have not mentioned the culture of something for nothing which is so pervasive now particularly, but not exclusively, amongst the younger generations. How is that to be turned around and how are those that espouse false concepts of 'freedoms' and 'rights' to be changed.

    I have long argued that those who facilitate and make available the wholesale sharing of copyright material should be the ones targeted, in the same way as those who make and sell counterfeit CDs and DVD's, by the proper duly constituted police authorities and judicial processes, and that this should have been done under existing legislation years ago when it would have been so much easier.

    Nevertheless, the entertainment industry has failed to move with the times and is, in part, the author of it's own problems by failing to embrace new technologies. Copyright similarly needs to be updated.

    Of course,copyright infringement has proved difficult to manage since national and judicial boundaries are crossed, and the waters have been muddied by this, false arguments about freedom ...... and and the powerful vested interests of the entertainment industry, unwilling to change and move with the times.

    Finally, though, I'm glad that the focus has finally begun to change from the consumer to the purveyor, where the principle focus should have always been from the early days. Nonetheless, there is real concern about the US is extending it's jurisdiction, as of right, rather than forming balanced international two way agreement, properly enshrined in their law.
    The Former Moley
  • @ Luke Jon Gibson - I frequently see the same people who are (rightly) insistent that ACTA et al only target big piracy operations, not regular file-sharers, then turn around and complain when existing laws are used to go after the very same big piracy operations. Perhaps it all comes down to motivation, but I think there are broadly two types of file-sharer, and those who are of the more innocent type should consider whether they really should be standing up for the other.

    On the topic of what to call the anti-anti-piracy-laws side, I did struggle there, I must admit. Anti-SOPA? Too narrow. Anti-copyright? Too broad. I referred to 'anti-rights-holder' because, at the moment, this is how it's playing out in courts and legislatures. I know there are many rights-holders who would not ordinarily choose to align themselves with their industry's lobby, and maybe those people need to speak up a bit more.

    @Moley - I agree about something-for-nothing as an all-pervasive attitude, but I do think there are many things you can rightly get for nothing, such as FOSS and, for that matter, music that artists have chosen to distribute for free. That's great, but yes, everything-for-nothing is not a healthy attitude to have.
    David Meyer
  • @ David Meyer

    I stand corrected. I commented from within Firefox running on GNU/Linux, specifically Ubuntu but it could have been SuSe. However, this comment is from within Firefox running on Windows 8 Preview.

    @Luke Jon Gibson

    I'm wondering, if you really are the rights holder, why you do not use one of the many permissive licences which are available to suit your needs?
    The Former Moley
  • @ David Meyer

    Thanks for a great insight and a balanced view of both sides of the fence.

    I think the biggest point to be addressed is the concept of 'good' sharing and 'bad' sharing, social media and services like Facebook Movies and Spotify are great examples of 'good' sharing.

    Rights holders are trying to embrace the concept of sharing but looking at alternative models of revenue - meaning more licences and future developement of music, film and games within a sustainable model.

    I think many would agree with you in terms of the moral blackhole file sharing and piracy highlights (is it stealing, is it not) but many like @Jon Gibson would not but the simple fact of the matter is that studios (music, movies and game development) plough millions upon millions into development and some titles are blockbusters some are flops.

    Their business depends on maximising the revenue from the blockbuster to cover the flops (in all 3 categories and more) and it's the blockbusters that get pirates and shared the most.

    If we don't want to see Mission Impossible 53 with a geriatric Tom Cruise or Terminator 12: Terminator Reloaded alongside Star War: 3D Digitally remastered, 12 seconds bonus feature with nothing in between then we need a solution that ensures we have a sustainable model for sharing, an open debate about how movie studios et al move into the digital age and better international standards then this is going to continue for decades to the detriment of us all.
  • A good balanced view from both sides,but I personally think it will harm the artists and makers alike.
    I like to listen to the tracks/album first before buying.
    If I cant listen to the track 1st then why bother to buy it?
    I have bought albums I like after I have listened to them online.
    So it is a poor state of affairs when the ordinary internet user should be penalised and a site taken down because of the many who want to listen and then buy the product.
    Is there not a site which a net user can just listen to recordings and then decide whether to buy or not to buy?
    After all it is in the interests of all concerned to sell goods ,so by taking away the freedom to listen can only harm all interested parties,both internet and companies as well.
  • @ Charlie7290 - Spotify and Deezer spring to mind. Of course, when it comes to more obscure music, sometimes unlawful downloading is the only way to get to hear it at all...
    David Meyer
  • Thanks Dave, a useful comment and a fair one.
    Still a lot of debating to be done for the pro's and cons of it all.
    I just hope its not against the vast majority who just want to listen.