Hollywood v. The Pirate Bay: Will the Studios Sink the Internet to Get One Site?

The Pirate Bay is a Swedish website which allows users to search for and download BitTorrent files. Also known as torrents, these are small files that contain metadata necessary to download larger files from other users.

The big American film industry sees The Pirate Bay as a mortal enemy that must be wiped out. That's because the studios know that many people use The Pirate Bay to find illegal copies of Hollywood films enabling "rampant copyright theft on the Internet." The Motion Picture Association of America ("MPAA") has worked for years to stop the mass illegal distribution of copyrighted content (including movies and TV programs) that they complain is assisted by The Pirate Bay.

But, to date, all the MPAA attacks have not resulted in what the big studios want the most - a complete shutdown of The Pirate Bay. The Pirate Bay is still operating. In fact, when the MPAA hired an Indian software firm, Aiplex.com, to launch cyber attacks on The Pirate Bay in 2010, those attacks were unsuccessful and hackers struck back - defacing and shutting down MPAA sites.

Because the existing legal and extra-legal remedies have not shut down The Pirate Bay - the studios have been lobbying Congress for a new law that would give MPAA members the ability to block US Internet users from reaching any offshore "rogue site" - including sites like The Pirate Bay that merely assist searches by illegal downloaders. That new law - the Stop Online Piracy Act ("SOPA") is due for "mark-up" in the House Judiciary Committee today (Dec. 15th, 2011).

As drafted, SOPA would give MPAA members (and other big content owners) the unrestricted ability to impose an "internet death penalty" on non-US sites - based only on a claim that the site could have done more to discourage pirates.

Typical of past attempts by the MPAA to fight new technologies, SOPA is "poorly drafted, sledgehammer style legislation" widely seen as a threat to online innovation and free speech. In particular, tech companies like Google and Yahoo worry that SOPA opens the door to "huge business and government intervention into the free flow of the Internet."

In response to the flaws of SOPA, an alternative bill - called the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade ("OPEN") Act - has been proposed as a compromise.

The new OPEN legislation targets advertisers and credit-card companies that make money working with websites that offer pirated content. The goal is to crack down on copyright violators that engage in enterprise-level commerce - without crushing the next YouTube or other innovative website that simply allows users to post non-commercial mash-ups etc.

But the MPAA opposes OPEN - in large part because the big studios know that OPEN would be ineffective against ThePirateBay.org.

OPEN wouldn't give the big media companies what the really want - the power to shut down a domain called The Pirate Bay.

"Simply going after the money isn't going to work [for] all sites since not all of them have advertising or some kind of monetary component... Pirate Bay is an example of one that would probably stay up even if the advertising disappeared."

Oddly, even if SOPA passes, it's not clear that the new law would have any real effect on torrents: The Pirate Bay is one central directory - but censoring The Pirate Bay domain name will not end the threat from torrents. Closing down one directory is unlikely to end the impulse to copy and share online - and (although The Pirate Bay has made finding torrents very convenient) torrent users don't need The Pirate Bay directory. The entire system of torrents is built on access to millions of decentralized files - and the .torrent files can be shared in all sorts of ways that SOPA can't reach (e.g., email).

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