A Nation of Pirates
Panicked by digital plunder, the entertainment industry fights back
The raging green monster has broken loose. In a rampage, it tears across screens around the planet, its digitally animated fury leaving a trail of damage estimated at billions of dollars. The mightiest forces of the U.S. government fail to corral it. A marvel of technology, it lures ever more devotees. No, it's not the Hulk, eponymous star of Universal Pictures' faltering blockbuster. That green goliath may be formidable enough to fight an army to a standstill, but even his superhuman strength couldn't stop a more insidious enemy: digital piracy. Two weeks before the film arrived in theaters, a version already was circulating online, available free to users of popular file-trading software.
Piracy has become a national pastime. It's no longer just college kids trading the latest hit by rockers Radiohead or the rapper 50 Cent. Cunning technology, antiquated laws, and growing public disdain for footing the costs of traditional retail business have combined to create a potent cocktail that has Internet users everywhere tipsy on bootlegged bounty. Every day, ordinary people download billions of files: blockbuster movies, cable TV shows, music, video games, software, and nearly every other kind of copyright-protected material available in digital form. The process is seductively simple. Just install the software, available free from a Web site, type the name of the desired file into its search engine, pick among the choices accessible for download, and in minutes to hours--depending on file size and connection speeds--you can find a copy on your hard drive.
After years of trying to curtail this behavior, only to see it expand exponentially, the entertainment industry is launching a new offensive. Having failed to quash the technologies, it is going after the pirates themselves. It vows to bring lawsuits--hundreds of them to start--against people who offer to trade copyrighted materials. Says Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America: "These people are stealing, plain and simple."
This unprecedented tactic could target millions of people--possibly someone in your own home or office--with stiff penalties. It's just the latest turn in a high-stakes struggle. As content becomes divorced from products like CDs and videotapes, its creators need new ways to control and charge for it. How industry, consumers, and the courts adapt to this new reality will determine the shape of digital entertainment and intellectual-property law for years to come. "It ultimately comes down to legislative and regulatory control," says Lee Black, an analyst with the Jupiter Media research group. "And that doesn't necessarily move at the pace of technological change."
Almost three years after U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel shut down Napster, the pioneering service that introduced more than 20 million people to the illicit thrills of skipping record stores, piracy is bigger than ever. Kazaa, the trading software that is Napster's most popular heir, has been downloaded more than 230 million times worldwide, and the phenomenon now goes well beyond music. Long transfer times had limited the popularity of trading movies over the Internet, but broadband connections are changing that. An estimated 400,000 to 600,000 copies of films are traded digitally every day, according to Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.