Canadian company collecting info on millions of habitual illegal downloaders

·National Affairs Contributor

If you like to download movies and music for free, beware, because Big Brother is watching you. Well, more like Big Brother Corp.

A Canadian forensic software company tells Postmedia News that it's collected data on a million Canadians who it says have illegally downloaded pirated content.

Canipre, a Montreal-based anti-piracy company, works for the movie and music-recording industries to fight the flourishing practice of peer-to-peer file sharing enabled by sites such as BitTorrent.

The company says a recent Federal Court of Canada ruling that forced Internet providers to release detailed information about subscribers is just a first step in an industry crackdown against illegal downloading.

[ Related: BitTorrent file sharers are heavily monitored, study finds ]

"The door is closing," Canipre managing director Barry Logan told Postmedia News. "People should think twice about downloading content they know isn't proper."

Peer-to-peer file sharing has been around almost along as the Internet. Software allows computer systems to connect with each other or a central server via the web to exchange data.

That in itself is not illegal. But the software became popular in the late 1990s as a vehicle for people to share music via services such as now-defunct Napster without paying for it. The practice's supporters have used a kind of Robin Hood argument that high prices for CDs, DVDs and commercially available downloads justified their activities.

The entertainment industry, backed by government, argue it amounts to copyright infringement and piracy.

Last week, the Federal Court ordered several Internet service providers to hand over the names and addresses of 50 subscribers linked to illegal downloads to NGN Prima Production, Postmedia News reported.

The Burnaby, B.C., company alleged the subscribers had illegally downloaded copies of their movie, Recoil, a straight-to-video action flick starring ex-wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin.

Logan said last week's Federal Court should be a wake-up call to Canadians who need to realize they could be held liable for digital piracy and face commercial penalties of up to $5,000.

Canipre is involved in another, potentially much bigger case that could snare thousands of Canadians it says have illegally downloaded movies and other content, Logan told Postmedia News.

The company has files on one million Canadians who've downloaded movies via BitTorrent over the last five months, identifying them through IP addresses.

Logan said many people ignore warnings from their service providers that they're engaged in illegal downloading and now may receive legal letters warning of possible court action against them. Under Canada's recently revised copyright law, copyright holders can seek statutory damages limited to $5,000 for non-commercial infringement, he said.

[ Related: What Ottawa's new copyright laws will mean for Canadians ]

"Canada is a very significant country in terms of peer-to-peer file sharing and illegal downloading of copyright works," Logan told Postmedia News.

"We have quite a significant evidence collection program that has been in place in Canada for a number of months, it doesn't discriminate between ISPs."

The Canadian movie industry appears to be following the lead of its U.S. counterpart in combating piracy, said Mira Sundara Rajan, formerly the Canada Research chair in intellectual property law at the University of British Columbia.

The U.S. uses a graduated system known as the "Six Strikes," initiative, she told Postmedia News. Downloaders are first warned that what they're doing is illegal and repeat offenders are then blocked from access to certain sites, with the threat of legal action from rights holders used as the final step, she said.

"I think the end game actually is to try and make a dent in the downloading activity," said Sundara Rajan. "What we are doing is following in the footsteps of an American approach here which has been to try to target individual users and set them as examples of what can go wrong if your illegal downloading activity is discovered.

"I think that it is much more than an issue of trying to get fines in place. I think it is a question of creating an idea of deterrence in the mind of the public."

Logan seems to agree, saying Canipre is looking for repeat or habitual illegal downloaders. They will be idenified only by their IP addresses initially, he said, but if legal action is taken, their names would be released in the statements of claim filed in court.

Not surprisingly, the peer-to-peer community has greeted the Federal Court ruling negatively.

A post on the site TorrentFreak says "copyright trolls" are threatening downloaders with legal action in the U.S. and Europe to try and extract cash payments.

" 'Pay us a cash settlement,' the trolls advise, 'or we'll make your life a misery.'

"While Canadians are known for their love of online file-sharing, in contrast they have engaged in their pastime largely unhindered for more than a decade. But a court ruling last week has the potential to change the landscape in the largely sharing-tolerant country."

The threat of court action in Canada will also be used as leverage to get case payments, the TorrentFreak post predicts.

[ Related: Appeals court raises damages award in music piracy case ]

"But while the United States has punishing statutory damages of US$150,000 per item infringed, non-commercial statutory damages in Canada are capped at $5000 meaning the fear factor will be considerably smaller.

"Will Canadians feel compelled to pay? We may soon find out."

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