If you frequently pirate (steal, infringe, whatever you want to call it) movies and other content from the Internet, and haven't taken extraordinary steps to cover your tracks like using a Virtual Private Network to hide your identity, you may be getting a letter in the mail in the next few weeks informing you that you are being sued.
A Montreal-based company named Canipre has been tracking torrent users using popular torrent sites to share and download copyrighted content. According to reports, the media and entertainment companies that hired Canipre are preparing to launch suits against thousands of potential infringers.
That's on top of the first 50 suits launched earlier this year by a Burnaby-based film company, which went to court last week.
The company went to court to force Internet service providers (ISPs) to reveal the identities of 50 IP addresses — unique numbers that can identify computers and other devices on the web. Potentially setting a new precedent, a federal court judge sided with the Burnaby company, and has ordered several ISPs to provide that information.
The ISPs haven't complied yet and may seek to appeal the ruling, but if the ruling is upheld on appeal, or ISPs decide to comply (I doubt it), then under existing laws the infringers could be held liable and forced to pay statutory damages up to $5,000 each.
Knowing Canada, I don't see many offenders getting the maximum penalty and the reality is that these suits will likely cost the entertainment industry more than they could ever hope to recoup through litigation. But it's not about the money anymore, it's about survival as companies are realizing that they're finished unless they can pull the plug on illegal downloading.
In that sense the suits are about sending out a message that torrent users are being tracked and the industry is not going to let it slide anymore. They are about making an example of people. If successful, they'll scare all those who don't get swept up in these suits to change their ways and start paying for content.
There's a side benefit as well: by tying up the courts with thousands of suits, the companies will force the government to get involved and come up with a stranger legislated solution to infringement.
I've been arguing for years that it was only a matter of time before legal precedents and the technology caught up with copyright infringers, and I changed my own ways years ago. I was never a major torrent user, but I did use Limewire and other P2P services to download music. My justification at the time was that I did own all of the music I downloaded at one point on record, tape or scratched-and-now-unplayable CD, and I was merely replacing what I've lost.
There are other common excuses that downloaders use — the price is too high, the producers of the content make too much money, "I'm broke," the media companies don't make it easy to get the content legally, companies punish legal purchasers with digital rights management software, companies provide poor customer service, and so on. Everybody's got an excuse.
Some also argue from a purist standpoint that all information should be free in a democracy and that copyright is a tool of oppression used by the rich to take from the poor — although the reality is that 99 per cent of what's downloaded can be classified as entertainment, and low-brow entertainment at that.
These excuses were valid once, but no longer. Music has never been as cheap. Movies are widely available on dozens of platforms from Netflix to YouTube. Television shows are online. Valve, Good Old Games and others have made it easy and affordable to download video games. Electronic books are comparable in price to paper books, and millions of older, out-of-copyright books are widely available.
Distribution has not fully caught up — try to get the original Star Wars trilogy legally, for example, or
Game of Thrones — but torrenting isn't the supply and demand issue it was in the past.
Canipre said they are only going after heavy users in the next round of suits.
If that list includes you, then good luck; you may be offered a chance to settle out of court for a nominal fee in exchange for a guilty-plea, or you may wind up in small claims court defending yourself.
Just don't expect that the industry is going to lose interest this time; a few years ago they were fighting over profits, but now they're fighting for their livelihoods.