Jason_Pic130The UK is considering a law that would force ISPs to cut off service to those accused of illegally downloading movies and/or music. This has the potential to reignite an old debate—one that’s persisted since the term “digital media” was invented. Our handling of this issue has profound ramifications for the future of the entertainment industry.

Back in the day, the scuttlebutt was that if you downloaded an MP3, it was legal as long as you “deleted it within 24 hours.” I researched this claim, and the best I could conclude was that it was an urban legend that took on the veneer of truth. Let’s be clear—there is no basis for it in fact. Referring to the 24 hour claim, Pro Music.org emphatically states that, “These excuses, when offered by someone other than the rights holder, are not recognized by copyright law.” Similarly, Copynot.org says that, “The law looks to the reality of what is happening-unauthorized transmission and reproduction of somebody else's music-rather than 'fine print' that is clearly false.” If you steal someone’s stereo, it’s not legal if you return it tomorrow. Stealing is stealing.

If caught, illegal downloaders will usually receive a letter like this. In sum, it states that we (the movie/music studio) know that someone from your IP address illegally downloaded a movie/song, please cease and desist, and failure could result in termination of your internet service and/or lawsuits. Two things are worth pointing out—1) The studio doesn’t know your name (merely your IP address), and 2) The ISP is still the intermediary at this stage. However, the studio could use legal procedures to force your ISP to reveal your personal info. At that point, you’ll receive a letter like this. The inevitable result is a settlement of several thousand dollars (unless they decide to make an example of you like the BU grad).

Aggressive action in response to illegal downloading is nothing new. What’s different in this case is the government mandating how ISPs ought to handle it. I’m not thrilled with federal intrusion into the private sector, but I’m a firm proponent of enforcing copyright law. The Open Rights Group (which exists to “preserve and promote your rights in the digital age”) disagrees. They claim that any such enforcement is a “curtailment of people’s freedom of expression.” Forgive me, but I fail to see any connection between theft and freedom of expression. The government isn’t interfering in any way with the content of said media; they’re simply ensuring that it doesn’t get stolen and distributed.

Some studios have chosen to embrace this trend rather than fight it. Comedy Central archived the entire South Park series online, seeing it as a progressive opportunity for ad revenue. In each online episode, they insert short ads at predefined points. They’re similar to traditional commercial breaks, but the ads’ short length is conducive to those with low attention spans. I’m not saying this would work for every studio. It’s simply another way of doing business.

Digital copyright management is an issue poised for growth. Advances in technology have made it more relevant (observe the fiasco over the Kindle and 1984). One thing’s certain—if we don’t enforce digital copyrights, we’re headed towards a society devoid of “professionals,” with no concept of “property,” and without individual rights. Sound familiar?