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Village Roadshow's long fury road to blocking piracy sites

Village Roadshow has notched up its first win in a long battle to stop Australians downloading films and TV shows through peer-to-peer file-sharing services.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

On Wednesday, MPs, staffers and the film industry will gather in parliament house for a screening of Mad Max: Fury Road.

The film, like the others in its series, is the product of Australian film company Village Roadshow.

In recent years, Village Roadshow has become synonymous with lobbying against online copyright infringement.

The company was the named litigant in its, ultimately losing case, against iiNet that resulted in the High Court ruling the ISP did not authorise its customers' copyright infringement.

From there, it was clear that the only avenue the company, and other rights holders had, was through forcing a change in legislation.

The first attempt at that with the last government fell over when rights holders and the ISPs could not agree on who would pay for any notice scheme to deter alleged infringers.

Since the election, Village Roadshow's co-CEO Graham Burke has been a prominent player in the push, but only recently began speaking out publicly on what he said was killing the industry.

"Our numbers are soft, but also just the sheer number of anecdotal reports. It's just massive," he told ZDNet last year.

"We make AU$2.6 billion-worth of films in Australia. If the piracy thing is not nailed, it's over mate. O-V-E-R."

He also was one of a few rights holders to participate in a public forum moderated by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull on online copyright infringement last year.

He was also just one of a small group to ever get a meeting with Attorney-General George Brandis about its action to attempt to reduce online copyright infringement. Records show Brandis never met with anyone other than rights holders.

It's also understood the firm's lobbying of the office of Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been endless since the 2013 election.

And while crying poor about the imminent doom of the film industry, Village Roadshow has also managed to donate millions to both the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal Party.

Burke has been a major backer of legislation to require piracy sites to be blocked, telling a Senate committee that the sites were "run by criminal gangs".

"They are leeches living off stolen product. Additionally, pirate sites are a sleazy neighbourhood which our children go to, and they are selling hard-core pornography and scams such as party pills and steroids," he said.

Burke said cinemas in local towns would shut down if piracy isn't stopped.

"If the product is stolen, there will be no viability, and not only will there be massive job losses but arguably the soul of communities will go dark."

On Wednesday, Brandis will be able to present Burke with the trophy he has long sought: The ability to have websites like The Pirate Bay blocked from Australian view.

The legislation passed the Senate on Monday to allow rights holders to obtain a court order to force ISPs to block overseas-hosted websites for the purpose, or facilitation of online copyright infringement, with the support of Labor.

The timing of the legislation is curious, given that the government has said regarding other pieces of legislation such as same-sex marriage, that only the Budget would be considered in the June sitting period. Site-blocking itself appeared nowhere in the Budget papers.

Both Labor and Coalition MPs also claimed that the legislation was extensively considered by a parliamentary committee, except there was a very short submission process over Easter, and the committee held just one hearing where only one Coalition senator and one Labor senator bothered to show up.

Even then, the only amendments were to make it even easier for rights holders to block websites, and to point out -- in the explanatory memorandum and not the legislation -- that virtual private networks (VPNs) that may facilitate copyright infringement by their very existence were not meant to be blocked.

Labor said it was dissatisfied that the government hadn't, as promised, legislated to ensure ISPs costs are covered. The party was also said to be unhappy that the government hadn't responded to an Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) report from 2013 that called for fair use to be introduced into law.

The party was also unhappy that the government had not responded to the IT pricing inquiry that pointed out the obvious -- Australians tend to pay more, and wait longer for the content that rights holders are so keen to stop Australians from illicitly downloading.

There's also the whole matter that the government has now passed a law to block websites that infringe on copyright at the same time it has indicated it is about to overhaul the entire Copyright Act.

In the intervening period, sites that may not be considered "infringing" under an overhauled Copyright Act could potentially find themselves blocked.

But rather than holding off a vote until those issues were addressed, Labor put aside its concerns in voting with the government to pass the legislation. Labor's Jacinta Collins said that Labor supported allowing websites to be blocked because it represented a "modest" attempt to stop online copyright infringement.

Turnbull has said it is about protecting Australian jobs, with very little evidence that piracy has affected Australian jobs, or that site-blocking powers implemented elsewhere have protected jobs that otherwise would have been lost to the torrents.

In fact, research suggests that the UK's version, while blocking The Pirate Bay, has done little to shift consumers onto legal avenues, and instead turned customers to Pirate Bay mirrors, or using VPNs to circumvent the block. It was only when there was a set of sites blocked at once that consumers even thought about switching to Netflix.

But as Mad Max: Fury Road is played on the cinema in Parliament House, the government will now be able to say it is "doing something" to protect the jobs that made the film possible, as Village Roadshow considers which Hydra head it wants to cut off next.

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