Say hello to the Copyright Alert System

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If you don't read a lot of tech blogs you may not be aware that today marks the beginning of the weeklong rollout of something called the Copyright Alert System. But once it's up and running—and causing pain in the asses of the many people who rely on peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent for their entertainment content needs—we're likely to hear a lot more about it.

The CAS is a partnership between the major Internet service providers (like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon) and content providers (like movie studios, record labels, and TV networks) that allows the latter to contact (and, in some circumstances, punish) users of those ISPs who they find to be uploading copyrighted content to P2P networks.

How it works is that a company called MarkMonitor, working for the studios/labels/etc, will watch the traffic on P2P networks, waiting for someone to upload illegal content. When they find someone, they forward the user's IP address to the Center for Copyright Information, which runs the CAS. The CCI in turn will contact the offending user directly through e-mails and texts, alerting them that their account is being used to illegally upload copyrighted material. After several violations they may be required to read through materials intended to educate them about copyright. Run afoul of the CAS enough times and your ISP may throttle your home Internet connection, presumably to give you plenty of time to think on your intellectual-property-related sins while you wait for your Web pages to load. And if you're a serial offender the CAS can offer your records as evidence in any lawsuit the copyright holders bring your way. (This Daily Dot primer has more details on the CAS.)

Like most piracy "solutions" that the RIAA and MPAA have signed on with, the Copyright Alert System is fundamentally flawed, both in theory and in practice, or at least in terms of MarkMonitor's performance so far. Earlier this month it sent a cease-and-desist letter to Google for linking to a site allegedly offering pirated content produced by HBO, which turned out to be hbo.com, the network's official website.

On the technical side there are dozens of possible ways to fool MarkMonitor and the CAS, including spoofing your IP, or seeding your torrents through someone else's network, possibly a neighbor who was kind and/or naive enough to leave their Wi-Fi unprotected. Or you can just do all of your BitTorrenting at the coffee shop—the CAS only applies to home accounts, not businesses. Or you could just sign up with a smaller ISP that isn't signed up with the CAS at all.

My guess is that all the CAS is going to accomplish is hassling a few people who actively trade pirated intellectual property and a bunch more people who don't but who were insufficiently vigilant in policing who's been using their networks and for what purposes. And otherwise intellectual property piracy will go on essentially unaffected.

The online black market in copyrighted material is essentially like the drug trade—place an obstacle in the middle of it and people will naturally find a way to work around it. In this analogy the CAS would be like a police initiative to actively bust the small-time corner dealers at only a handful of highly trafficked intersections—it'll knock a few of them out of commission and off the streets, but won't do anything about what's happening on other corners, not to mention the infrastructure propping up the whole network. And stepping up their initiative is almost out of the question—sending teenage script kiddies to jail for putting superhero movies on BitTorrent would be a massive PR disaster.

At a time when even Republicans are realizing that the drug war's a failure, the MPAA and RIAA should consider abandoning their pursuit of a similar model of enforcement. A real solution to the piracy epidemic would have to be far more creative than the threats and guilt trips they've relied on to such little success so far. But something about the fact that Michael Bay's gotten the green light for both Transformers 4 and the second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot in the past decade makes me think that that kind of innovative, original thinking isn't going to happen anytime soon.

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