Just as the music industry has scored some success in its legal battles against internet pirates, the film industry has come across problems of its own.
The recording industry has for some time been using high profile litigation against a number internet sites, most famously Napster and MP3.com, in an attempt to curtail the unlicensed copying of music over the internet. In adopting this course, the record companies have had to tread a fine line in attempting to secure injunctive remedies to shut down relevant sites, whilst at the same time avoiding forcing music pirates underground entirely.
The market for music swapping over the internet will not simply disappear if sites such as napster.com are shut down. There are plenty of other options available to users, some of which (such as Gnutella) avoid using centralised web-sites and which are therefore much less attractive targets for litigation.
The recording industry's efforts through litigation have not, however, gone unrewarded, with the action against MP3.com leading to royalty deals between MP3.com and Warner, BMG and EMI. It would also be no surprise to see similar deals being brokered with Napster when the next round of court hearings gets underway in mid-August.
In the meantime, companies in the film industry are beginning to feel the heat from internet pirates. Last year the number of films being illegally downloaded over the internet is thought to have more than doubled, with current estimates at 350,000 films per day being pirated. These range from films which have been released onto the home video market on DVD (which can be decrypted using methods publicised on the internet) to video recordings of the film industry's most valuable asset, the blockbuster new release (which can be saved onto a hard drive and then compressed for transmission through the internet).
The initial reaction of the Hollywood studios has been to follow the example of the music companies by attempting to curb piracy through litigation. For example, legal proceedings have been issued against the file swapping service www.scour.com, and against www.2600.com which the studios allege has been spreading a utility known as Decode Content Scrambling System (DeCSS) that allows DVDs to be copied and transmitted over the internet.
Estimates are that the current level of film piracy is where MP3 piracy was in 1997. However, with users being offered cheaper and faster internet connections and with digital downloading becoming more common place, these levels are expected to increase exponentially. Accordingly, whilst the film industry can to some extent follow the lead of the recording industry by using litigation to combat piracy, they will undoubtedly have to learn a few new tricks if they are going to keep film piracy under control in the ever changing environment of the internet.
First published in SCMP Technology Post on 8 August 2000.