The new Copyright Alert System that went into effect last week is a weak response to the rampant Internet theft of music, films, games, and television programs. But it's better than doing nothing to combat the wrongheaded assertion that intellectual property should be free to anyone who can grab it.
Artists deserve to be compensated for their efforts, and so should the companies that take risks to promote and distribute their work. Stealing songs and movies to pass among friends or to sell in a black market robs the originators of their incomes.
Online file-swapping has so damaged the music industry that this is the first time since 1999 that it has seen a tiny increase in revenue. More than a decade ago, the industry shut down Napster's free file-sharing service and created inexpensive and easily downloaded music files. But it hasn't fully solved the theft problem.
In fact, the Irdeto security firm told the Wall Street Journal that the 5.4 billion instances of pirated content that it detected online in 2009 mushroomed to 14 billion last year. Independent film distributor Kathy Wolfe said she lost more than $3 million in 2012 as a result of stolen content.
Under the new alert system, the five largest Internet service providers Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Cablevision, and Time Warner Cable will search peer-to-peer sharing websites to determine if copyrighted material is being used without permission. Other, smaller ISPs are expected to join in. When someone illegally sharing a song or movie is found, he will be issued a series of six warnings aimed at stopping him.
The Center for Copyright Infringement, which is coordinating the new system, says service providers won't monitor users' Internet traffic, which should allay fears about an invasion of privacy.
The warnings start with mild e-mail alerts that assume the violator may not know that what he is doing amounts to theft. If subsequent notices are ignored, a provider can slow down the violator's Internet service for 48 hours. There are no repercussions after that, although it's possible that information from the system could be used to file lawsuits against content thieves.
The alert system is aimed at educating, rather than punishing, consumers. But the light approach may prove too lenient to be effective. The threat of litigation might discourage massive pirating by large-scale operations. But slowing down a 14-year-old's Internet speed for two days may not be enough to deter him from downloading first-run movies and music on his laptop to share with his friends.
It may be that the real value of the alert system will be to provide enough information to come up with an even better idea to stop theft. Internet pirates keep inventing ways around security systems. Their victims have to figure out how to stay a step ahead.