Canada's new online copyright protection laws now in effect

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If you haven’t illegally downloaded something off of the Internet, you are probably a saint. Or you didn’t know it was possible; or you didn’t know until right now what the internet was.

But those illegal downloading habits got a bit more precarious in the New Year.

Canada’s new anti-piracy laws went into effect this week, giving copyright holders an avenue to confront illegal downloaders. It is unlikely, however, that piracy will end overnight.

The U.S. and Britain currently have similar laws, or stronger ones, in place and illegal downloading is still rampant in those countries.

The issue of internet piracy has been a growing concern, as media trends toward an online existence faster and more emphatically. What was popularized in the 1990s by Napster – the now-defunct peer-to-peer music exchange site – has since become a massive, unending web of access points.

Pirate Bay is perhaps the best-known torrent site, where Internet users share content such as movies and television programs. It was raided in 2006 but was reformed. The site was ripped offline again in December.

A bare-bones site remains online, with a countdown clock ticking down to Feb. 1.

It is important to note that the process of sharing files over the internet is not illegal. The issue is raised when those files are copyrighted material, being shared by those who don’t hold the copyright.

Like last week, when the controversial movie “The Interview” was put up for sale online and was quickly pirated and shared 200,000 times in a day.

Canada’s Copyright Modernization Act went into effect on Jan. 1. The Act gives the people who own the rights to movies, television shows and music the right to protect their property from illegal downloads.

Copyright holders can request Internet service providers – the companies that provide you with Internet access – relay warnings to people monitored participating in illegal downloading - via streaming services or torrents.

Those warnings act as notices that, should the activity continue, the users could be sued.

The user’s identity would be kept private through this process, but could be made available in the case of a lawsuit.

This is by no means Canada’s first foray into policing online content access. The Canadian Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement agency petitioned to have Ontario Internet providers release personal information about their users in 2013, in an apparent effort to assist a Canadian production company seek financial payment from illegal downloaders.

And while Canada has had a framework for punishing illegal content users previously, it lagged behind other Western nations. Britain is currently governed by the Digital Economy Act, which is similar to what Canada has put in place.

And America’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act allows holders to gain direct access to the identities of those caught illegally downloading their material. The result has been a series of lawsuits against Internet users. Some have resulted in significant financial punishment, but all have captured the attention of the masses.

So should Canada expect to see an immediate end to illegal downloads? Clearly not. First of all, it is unlikely many will learn their lesson until they receive their first warning from their internet service provider.

For another, the laws in other countries have done little to end the practice there.

In Britain, the practice of illegally accessing digital entertainment media - whether that be music, movies, books, television, video games or computer software - appears to be on the incline.

According to the Ofcom online copyright infringement tracker, 17 per cent of U.K. Internet users over the age of 12 illegally accessed digital media between March and May 2013, the latest information available. That accounts for 7.4 million users.

A quarter of these people exclusively consumed illegal content.

Put more bluntly, if you adjust the field to consider “all Internet users who consumed content online over the three-month period” (rather than anyone over 12 who used the Internet during that time) and the percentage of users who illegally consumed content reaches nearly one-third (30 per cent).

Also notable in the report was a decrease in the number of users who exclusively accessed content legally – 40 per cent during the report’s timeframe, down from 43 per cent the previous period.

The problem is much worse in the U.S. where much of the illegally consumed content is created. In 2012, Americans made 96.8 million torrent downloads. The Institute for Policy Innovation estimates the U.S. economy loses $12.5 billion in revenue each year to online music piracy alone.

So if Canada’s new laws don’t work, how should they cut down on Internet piracy? The Ofcom study delves into that from a British perspective. According to the report, 32 per cent of infringers said they would be encouraged to stop if there were cheaper legal services. Another 24 per cent said more clarity on what is illegal and what is not would encourage them to follow the rules.

Only 14 per cent of British infringers said they would be turned off if they received a letter threatening to suspend Internet access. We’ll have to see whether Canadians feel the same way about such threats.