A decade ago, three university students narrowly escaped jail sentences in Australia’s first criminal prosecution for internet music piracy. Charles Ng, 20, and Peter Tran, 19, had run MP3WMAland, an Napster-style website, from Ng’s bedroom at his family’s home in Blacktown. Although the students attained no revenue from the website, their 18-month suspended jail sentences included 200 hours of community service and a $5000 fine.
The music industry wanted a stronger deterrent. At the time, the Music Industry Piracy Investigations agency (MIPI), which launched the investigation, said the students had escaped with a “slap on the wrist”. Their collective damage was estimated at up to $200 million in lost sales.
Even USyd came under the MIPI’s gaze. In August 2003, the Federal Court ruled that the University must hand over student and staff details if the recording industry sought information about students or staff caught infringing copyright.
Fast forward a few years and similar issues remain. In the eyes of the creative industries, Australia still does not have a conclusive copyright policy.
Jon Lawrence from Electronic Frontiers Australia is pessimistic about any upcoming proposals: “The previous government attempted to develop an industry-based scheme, but was unable to achieve agreement with the ISPs, who generally are very disinclined to act as copyright police”.
“The High Court also confirmed this is not their role in the Roadshow Films v iiNet case … there will therefore need to be legislation introduced if any such scheme is to be introduced in Australia,” he said.
In late April, Attorney-General George Brandis and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull will meet and confirm their copyright policy. Technology site Delimiter wryly reported there’s to be a trilogy of new proposals: “In short, nothing big then. Just court orders to block websites … ‘three strikes’ policies to cut off users’ Internet access [and] subpoenaing users’ details from ISPs so they can be sued directly,” wrote Delimiter editor Renai LeMay.
The centrepiece of these anti-piracy efforts will be the “three strikes” system. According to Lawrence, the potential impacts on young people are mixed, depending on “the sanctions involved”, which could include warning notices, fines, bandwidth throttling, and even the termination of ISP accounts. The new legal regime may disproportionately affect the tech-savvy youth.
Since Roadshow Films v iiNet the Australian Screen Association (ASA) has lobbied governments of both stripes to implement a “graduated response” regime. The ASA is a major political player – member Village Roadshow has donated nearly $4 million to the Liberal and Labor parties since 1998. There will be a significant return on investment if the new legislation is carried through
The proposed model has had mixed reviews overseas. The ASA claims French initiatives have resulted in “a reduction in online file sharing plus an increase in digital sales of content”. CHOICE magazine’s Madison Cartwright says implementations abroad “have not reduced piracy, despite their high costs, and in some cases have shown a disturbing lack of due process and judicial oversight”.
“Australians are turning to piracy not because it is ‘free’, but because it is the only way they can access the shows they want … Netflix and Spotify have done far more to combat piracy than graduated response schemes.”
As Australians takes their place as the world’s most prolific piraters of Game of Thrones, the war between industry and pirates is only part of the way through. There’s a legislative fight about to come to a head, so get your remote control ready. If there is one thing the show has taught me, it’s that there can’t be a happy ending for everyone. You win or you die, or you get sued.