The US Copyright Group

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

For the last ten years, the music industry has done a terrible job of minding its own business. Illegal digital downloading is so widespread, in some international markets recorded music sales are down 60% to 80%. While the record business has tried to solve the difficult task of combating file sharing, their attempts have been constantly challenged by the lure of “free” bit torrent sites.

And labels have not been successful at building consumer confidence. They’ve tried suing fans, cutting off Internet service and threatening offenders until they paid up. None of these tactics seem to bode well for long-term customer relations. At the end of the day, music fans still have access to free peer-to-peer sites, which means labels are still fighting the “free” problem.

But some in the movie business have no intention of making the same mistake. Yesterday, the Hollywood Reporter announced that a Washington, DC-based business called the US Copyright Group, has filed five lawsuits against tens of thousands of individual down-loaders over the last few weeks. The US Copyright Group, (named very similarly to a government organization) is actually an ad hoc coalition of independent filmmakers. Lawsuits targeting 30,000 more bit-torrent down-loaders are forthcoming.

The crux of the new lawsuits hinges on a German technological program that can monitor downloads of bit torrents. A bit torrent is different than the standard peer-to-peer protocol because it makes even small computers with low bandwidth capable of participating in large data transfers across a peer-to-peer network. Once an initial file is uploaded, many users can pull bits of the file off to create a full file simultaneously. And once those users have a full file, they too can become distributors of the file. This piecemeal system with multiple pieces of data coming from peer members is referred to as a “swarm.” Essentially, because of the nature of the swarm, every infringer is simultaneously stealing copyrighted material from many ISPs in numerous jurisdictions around the country. At least that’s what the US Copyright Group is arguing.

What makes this new software unique is that the program captures the numerical Internet protocol or IP address when a download occurs, and checks to see if the bit torrent file is copyright protected. The US Copyright Group can then go directly to the IP addresses and threaten lawsuits. While the IP address tactic is not always accurate, the enterprising US Copyright Group is willing to try and financially penalize viewers who are on record as downloading the bit torrent.

Of course, no matter what, suing your customer base can be tricky business. The record industry finally threw in the towel on that strategy in late 2008, after suing 35,000 individuals. Their “subpoena, settle or sue” determent program was just too expensive a public relations proposition to manage.

But with this new technology, some in the film world think we are on the precipice of monetizing bit torrents, albeit after the use has occurred. It’s just one more way entertainment companies are trying to take back their business from pirates.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.