According to a new Ipsos report, piracy in Norway has declined markedly over the past few years. In 2008 they estimated there were 1.2 billion illegal downloads of songs, but by 2012 this had dropped to 210m. A similar fall was seen in illegal downloads of videos. Why has this happened?
The fall may be due to the recent availability of relatively cheap legal alternatives. If you can listen to a song for a few pence from a system that is very easy to use, why would you go to the trouble (and it is still relatively complex) of finding an illegal copy on a Torrent site or similar peer to peer sharing networks? That is the argument put forward by industry commentators.
But as ever, correlation does not necessarily equal causation. There are other forces at work which must have had some impact on the results of the study. Various countries, including all of Scandinavia and the UK, now have Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who block access to sites known to provide pirated material, which will cause a drop in such downloads.
Some ISPs also write to users who download illegal content, warning them that their actions have been noted and they may face prosecution unless they desist. Receiving such a letter is quite enough to deter all but the hardened downloader. And, using legislation such as the Digital Economy Act 2010 in the UK or the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) in the US, many copyright owners have become much more proactive in serving court orders on those hosting material in breach of copyright or even on search engines and web directories, requiring them to prevent an illegal site from appearing in search results. You only to have look at some Google Transparency Reports to realise how prevalent this has become.
So, that would appear to be the end for online piracy, right? Not quite. It has undoubtedly been a major body blow but I suspect piracy will recover.
The fight against online piracy has been an arms race right from the beginning. New weapons used by law enforcement have enabled them to tackle the phenomenon, but that does not mean the “pirates” have been defeated. We have already seen pirate sites, such as movie4k.to, relocating their hosting servers to countries where the authorities are not interested in copyright theft (in this case, Tonga). While there are global agreements to cover copyright protection (the best known being the Berne Convention) it is notable that there are some large countries that have never signed the convention. And of course in this day and age you can be a small country and still host many services. The priates still have quite a few safe harbours at which to call.
Surely, then, blocking known pirate sites will deal the final blow? Sadly not. There are several ways in which users can circumvent such a block. All are freely available and easy to use.
Many pirate sites provide proxy addresses, which are alternative web addresses which the ISPs are not blocking, but which take you to the same content. Proxies can be set up at a moment’s notice and if one is blocked another can take its place with minimal disruption to the user.
Another way of avoiding the ISPs blocking you or tracking that you are downloading illegal content is to use networks such as Tor. A simple download from the Tor site will give you a browser that automatically connects to the Tor network and allows you to surf the web anonymously. (The use of Tor has also been highlighted because of the NSA leaks.
There have been attempts to stop software that has previously been required to access Torrent sites, which can prevent users from taking advantage of the anonymity that Tor provides. But even that impediment has been recently removed. A researcher was distributing new software at the BlackHat conference that will allow all of your activities, including presumably Torrent downloads, to take advantage of Tor.
So why is such software and services that can be used by those downloading illegal content are not made illegal themselves? Again the situation is not black and white. One person’s weapon is another person’s tool for communicating with the world without being tracked down by their despotic government. Many of these tools were not developed by pirates but by those with laudable aims. Technology often has more than one use.
It is not the end of online piracy. We have won a battle, possibly a significant battle, but we have most definitely not won the war.