Strike six: you’re out! New copyright initiative takes effect in U.S

Last week a new program aimed at reducing illegal downloads of copyrighted materials took effect in the U.S. Conceived in 2011, the Copyright Alert System (CAS) is a partnership between several media industry organizations and the major American Internet service providers. The intention is to make illegal downloading more difficult and inform users who may be unaware that their activities are illegal.

This is how the system is supposed to work: representatives of copyright owners join public peer-to-peer networks (specifically, public BitTorrent trackers like The Pirate Bay) and look for copyrighted material that is being shared illegally. If they find it, they verify that the shared file is a complete copy, not just a part, and send a notice to the Internet service providers (ISP) of the user sharing the file. From there, the ISP will take one of several actions, depending on the number of notices a user has received. The first few will simply trigger an email from the ISP, while further notices will lead to more intrusive measures such as throttling download speeds or requiring the user to watch an educational video.

The Center for Copyright Information, the organization in charge of the CAS, emphasizes that the copyright owners are only working with Internet Protocol (IP) addresses – unless they obtain a subpoena, they never see information that would allow them to tie the address to a specific person. There is also an independent review process for wrongful copyright alerts – though the user has only 14 days to file for a review and the process costs US $35, which is refunded only in the event of a successful claim.

Many ISPs already have similar programs, with more or less consistent enforcement. What’s new about the CAS is that it is a large-scale, coordinated, and publicized effort.

At this point there are still many details that have not been announced. Each provider will handle copyright alerts in its own way. So far, Verizon is the only ISP that has announced it will temporarily slow down connections to near dial-up speeds for users with six alerts. Cablevision will temporarily suspend accounts, and AT&T will block certain websites until the user completes an online copyright education course. No provider so far has considered completely cutting off service to offending users.

All these measures are temporary and, seemingly, rather toothless – more irritating than coercive. The system is meant to educate users who may be unaware that what they’re doing is illegal (if such people actually exist), and gently encourage them to seek out legal means of getting a hold of their media.

In fact, although the CAS has been described as a six-strike system, after the sixth alert no further action will be taken against a user’s account.

“We hope that by the time people get to alerts number five or six, they will stop,” said Jill Lesser, executive director of the Center for Copyright Information.

“Once they’ve been mitigated, they’ve received several alerts, we’re just not gonna send them any more alerts because they’re not the kind of customer that we’re going to reach with this program.”

Of course, legal action against offending users is not out of the question. Once the alerts stop, the records remain, and it’s not clear how they could be used in court. Also, the ISPs will have to let the copyright holders know which IP addresses receive more than one alert, which would make litigation easier.

At this point, a lot still depends on how the system is implemented and how the rules are enforced. In the meantime, virtual private networks and proxy services are seeing increased subscriptions. The CAS seems like a refreshing alternative to gigantic lawsuits against individual users, but it remains to be seen how, if at all, it will work in practice.