While film piracy has evolved and diversified over time, the approaches to combating piracy have remained fairly stagnant.

The three entities typically targeted in an attempt to combat piracy are:

  1. pirate downloaders,
  2. sharing platforms, and
  3. pirate uploaders.

The efficacy and limitations of these approaches will be discussed in turn.

1. Pirate Downloaders

In fighting film piracy, the main objective is to convert pirate downloaders to paying customers. At first glance, this anti-piracy target therefore seems logical, but in reality, it is not only ineffective in combating piracy (as will be discussed below), but can also damage the relationship between fans and creators.

The main approach to attack pirate downloaders are:

  • Identify infringing content
  • Identify the downloader
  • Contact the downloader
  • Threaten legal action
  • (Optional) Drive the downloader to legitimate distribution channels

Typically, the downloader is identified by their IP address. There are two problems with this approach. The first is the weak link between IP addresses and identities, and the second is the roll-out of personal information privacy laws which are being established in most countries. Legal precedent has denied the link between IP addresses and identities of copyright infringers in Washington, Florida, California, and recently in the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

These programs typically need to contact thousands of infringers, which poses two problems. The first is that such broad targeting requires automation, which does not necessarily take into account to whom these notices are sent. There was a media uproar after a 9-year-old girl was targeted for downloading music. This can lead to considerable brand damage.

The second problem is that pirates realise that legal action against the thousands of downloaders is not a credible threat. The rights holders have neither the incentive nor the finances to bankroll all these lawsuits. Some companies capitalise on the minority, or notice recipients who do not realise the folly of the lawsuits, and attempt to extract small cash settlements via internet service providers. This approach has had limited success.

2. Sharing Platforms

Piracy platforms are where downloaders go to find content. Services can be categorised as download services, streaming services, or linking services.

Download services host content and make them available for download. This includes services such as the now-defunct MegaUpload, but any cloud storage provider can be used to store and serve content. This makes it hard to attack these services, as was seen in the case against MegaUpload – a cloud service that provided online storage to anyone for any data. This could include nefarious content, such as pirated material, but also legitimate content such as documents and photos. These platforms provide a legitimate and valuable service to legitimate consumers, and as such are protected under Safe Harbour provisions, with some caveats.

Streaming platforms are typically more purpose-built, which would lead one to suspect that attacking these sites would be effective at stopping piracy, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Streaming piracy is actually increasing, with these sites attracting less sophisticated pirates through their easy-to-use interface.

Linking services like torrent sites do not host or serve content directly, but rely on third-party storage services or peer-to-peer sharing. These sites are notoriously hard to take down, with The Pirate Bay famously touting a hydra head following a recent takedown attempt, with various mirrors and domains at their disposal. Authorities have started targeting the individuals behind these sites rather than the sites themselves, as with the successful takedown of KickassTorrents in 2016. These attacks give the appearance of progress, but these victories are short-lived. Following the shutdown of the site, searches for The Pirate Bay shot up.

3. Pirate Uploaders

The limitations of other anti-piracy targets are related to the very nature of digital media, specifically the ease of copying and distribution. Once the proverbial genie is out of the bottle, it is impossible to put back. The best way to fight film piracy is to stop the spread at the source. The approaches here can be grouped into forensics and digital rights management (DRM).

Forensics focus on identifying a pirate uploader, as with the pirate downloaders, in order to take legal action against them. This is as much about punishing past infringers, as it is about deterring potential future infringers.

DRM attempts to stop pirates from spreading content, either through technical or social means. So-called hard DRM uses technical means to limit reproduction.

Unfortunately, hard DRM has an inherent limitation, since any media that can be viewed or heard by a human, can also be re-captured in digital form (the so-called “analog hole”). It remains popular, however, not for its efficacy in stopping piracy, but for the fact that circumventing it opens infringers to criminal prosecution according to the DMCA.

Given that targeting the source of piracy (the uploader) provides a way to stop piracy at its source, and given hard DRM’s inherent limitation, it is worth delving deeper into forensic approaches to combat piracy.

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