Does Illegal File Sharing Belong in the Same League as Other Cyber Crimes?

When you think of cyber crimes, several stand out. Cyber pornography. Sending malware to destroy businesses’ and individuals’ computers. Cyberbullying. Identity theft. Stealing information from people’s computers. But does downloading information without paying for it really deserve to be lumped in with the others as a federal crime?

Yes, according to the entertainment industry, which has long been at war with downloaders. One of the first major salvos in the war was the lawsuit against Napster, the first online file sharing service, in 1999. The eventual trial (outcome in 2001), considered whether and how Napster had violated copyrights established under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Napster’s services involved free file sharing — especially music files — and downloading. Napster eventually shut down to comply with an injunction, and new filing sharing services such as Grokster flocked to take its place. Other lawsuits followed — the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), in particular, filed 35,000 lawsuits against individual downloaders between 2003 and 2008.

For a while, services that offered cheap downloads, such as Apple’s iTunes, seemed like the solution to the problem. Artists could get paid and consumers hungry for content could have it quickly. But authorized services can’t always keep up with consumer demand (consider that it took until 2011 to put Beatles albums on iTunes), especially if the demand is for obscure material that isn’t sufficiently “commercial.” So downloading persists, and the entertainment industry, in tandem with state and federal government, tries to think of ways to crack down.

The latest effort is the Stop Online Piracy Act, currently working its way through the House Judiciary Committee. The bill would expand the powers of federal law enforcement and copyright holders to go after anyone who violated copyright laws or sold counterfeit goods online. Supporters claim that the Act is exactly what is needed, since other efforts have not stopped the flood. We have copyright laws for a reason: so people who create a work of art can, for a period of time, be the only ones to benefit from that creation. What would motivate people to create and sell their works if they could just be stolen and used without the creator’s permission? People who want content should just pay more, rather than expect to have everything they want, when they want it, for free.

The counter arguments are that copyright laws in this country don’t conform with the current reality. For too long, entertainment companies controlled how and when people received a product. So if you wanted one song, you needed to pay for the whole CD. If you wanted to watch an obscure film from your childhood, you needed to wait until one of the entertainment companies remembered that it existed and put it on video. Now, you can find the most obscure content easily because someone else has put it online. Artists long forgotten are suddenly talked about again, and inspiring other people to create their own works. Should people pay huge fines and go to jail for that? Should file-sharing websites like YouTube have to carry the burden of checking every single file once it is uploaded? Should college students have to hire criminal defense attorneys just for sharing music?

As it stands, the Stop Online Piracy Act is winning few friends and plenty of critics. One such critic came in the unlikely form of Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, who called the Act unconstitutional. He stated: “SOPA was ill-conceived, written in Hollywood, and included all kinds of things that physically can’t be done, including the DNS blocking.” To placate critics, the House has already stripped out the Domain Name System (DNS) blocking provision, which would have required ISPs to block overseas websites accused of piracy.

Even if the Stop Online Piracy Act is enacted, the issue of illegal downloading will surely be with us for years to come. Both sides have some merit, and it remains to be seen which side (if any) prevails.