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Lost at sea in the fight against digital piracy

New legislation aimed at fighting digital piracy is stirring controversy, but will shutting down websites directing users to download illegal copies of movies, games and songs halt a trend that has led to Spain being blacklisted as a haven of modern-day Blackbeards and Captain Morgans?


Spain is a paradise for digital pirates. But can they really be stopped?

In recent years, Spain has won itself the dubious honour of being labelled a haven for illegal downloading, to such an extent that international distributors have voiced doubts about continuing to supply the country with material such as DVDs. The government has attempted to tackle this issue with a raft of anti-piracy measures. Known as the Sinde Law, after Culture Minister Ángeles González Sinde, they were confusingly tacked onto an Economic Sustainability Law unveiled last year. The specific details of the legislation were not approved until March and Congress is expected to put the act into effect over the next couple of months.

Production companies, content providers and the anti-piracy groups that represent their interests are now rubbing their hands at the prospect of a summer in which Spanish internet users will supposedly be deprived of free, illicit downloads of blockbuster movies and the hit summer songs. They may well be rubbing in vain.

The law does not specifically prevent anyone from sharing copyrighted content online for non-commercial purposes and Spain will continue to have some of the world’s most lax legislation in that regard. Instead, the law will make it more difficult to share and download content –and take away some of the economic incentive for pirates to create illicit copies– by giving judges the power to quickly block access to websites offering direct movie, game and music downloads or links to file-sharing services containing copyrighted material.

How much more difficult it will be for people to get their hands on pirated content will depend largely on their level of computer and internet expertise. For basic internet users, unaccustomed to the interfaces of peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing networks, it might prove something of a challenge if the simple-to-use, albeit advertising-heavy, websites such as and stop operating. For more experienced users, any disruptions caused by the new law will probably be felt only as a slight bump on a road that, almost inevitably, will lead to new and better ways of sharing content online. And that points to the crux of the internet piracy problem.

Though Spain’s new anti-piracy law may lead to domestic websites providing illicit downloads being swiftly shut down by judicial order –around 200 fit the description according to anti-piracy campaigners– it will not stop copyrighted content from being shared across the internet.

Europe’s most belligerent buccaneers

Spain tops Western Europe’s ranking of illegal online downloads, with Spanish internet users downloading more than a billion songs, around 400 million films and 60 million video games last year, according to the Anti-Piracy Federation. Around a third of Spanish internet users regularly share copyrighted content. The rampant online buccaneering has led to Spain being placed alongside countries such as Russia and China on a piracy blacklist drawn up by a US congressional committee, and has led some production companies to hesitate about releasing content for the Spanish market, hence the limited local impact of the e-book phenomenon sweeping the rest of the world.

In March, Michael Lynton, chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, even warned: “People are downloading movies in such large quantities that Spain is on the brink of no longer being a viable home-entertainment market for us.”

In trying to deal with the problem and address the demands of the music and movie industries, the Spanish government has, rightly, backed away from more radical measures, such as France’s recently introduced three-strikes law, also being contemplated by Britain, that forces internet service providers (ISPs) to disconnect repeat file-sharers.

Banning websites that, through advertising and subscription fees, illicitly make money from distributing illegal content, though in itself a form of censorship, is one thing. Denying citizens the right to internet access in an era in which the free exchange of information is becoming a basic right is quite another.

“The internet is synonymous with freedom and free access to culture. Everything that restricts that freedom for political reasons, such as in China, or for economic ones, such as wanting to charge for access or certain pages, breaks the spirit of the internet, it breaks the invention,” Juan Carlos Rodríguez Ibarra, a Spanish politician turned internet freedom campaigner, told El País internet users recently in an online chat.

If the internet is to be kept free of censorship and access to cultural content enhanced rather than restricted, there is surely a better way to go about it than restricting access or taking down websites. What is needed is a fundamental rethink of the distribution channels for movies, music and video games. Boxed copies and physical discs are out the window, people want their content online and they want it now, and, as the success of services such as Apple’s iTunes or Netflix has shown, they are willing to pay, at least for some of it. And if they like what they hear –for free– they may well pay to go see an artist perform live, the way most performers make their real money, or watch a movie in an enhanced format impossible to replicate at home – think of the recent success of 3D cinema.

Swimming against the digital tide

Record companies, movie production studios, copyright protection organisations and the governments they lobby need to realise this and realise too that there is no point in throwing public money at fighting the means pirates use to share content, as another website, web service, network or technology, unencumbered by bureaucratic sloth, will be waiting in the wings to replace it. Certainly they should not do it in the guise of measures to stimulate the economy, especially when protecting entrenched interests comes at the expense of innovation and technological and business progress.

“Society should consider the social costs and benefits of the fight against piracy,” argue economists Michele Boldrin and Pablo Vázquez in a report for the Study Foundation on Applied Economics. The costs of fighting it, they note, are enormous, while the benefits are “miniscule or even negative.”

In trying to restrict digital media sharing online, copyright holders are trying to fight the progress of technology, like someone a decade ago trying to get DVDs banned in order to protect the market for VHS tapes. And, as history has shown, they will all but certainly find themselves fighting a losing battle.

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Published: Apr 5 2010
Category: Business
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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