Pulling the plug on online piracy

The cat-and-mouse game between downloaders and copyright holders will only intensify after new rules aimed at blocking online piracy kick in, according to media and legal experts.

They caution that tech-savvy users will find ways of getting around the block, while piracy sites could spawn mirror portals that will make enforcement a daunting challenge.

The warnings follow the announcement on April 7 that the Law Ministry is proposing legislation to allow content owners to ask the High Court for orders forcing Internet service providers, such as SingTel and StarHub, to ban access to piracy sites such as the infamous The Pirate Bay.

These sites allow users to illegally download films, TV shows and other content that would normally require payment.

The practice is rife in Singapore with estimates out last month suggesting that three in five people here illegally download videos.

Piracy has also been blamed for hitting music sales, which totalled $16.4 million last year, down from $29.8 million in 2009. Music piracy is also seen as a major threat to the survival of brick-and-mortar record shops.

If the law is introduced, Singapore traffic to piracy sites should fall significantly, according to the Swiss-based International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI).

IFPI's regional director for Asia, Mr Ang Kwee Tiang, told The Straits Times that site blocking has been effective in several European countries.

He noted that the use of The Pirate Bay fell 68 per cent between January 2012 and last December in countries where access was denied, including Austria, Britain, Denmark, France, Greece, the Netherlands and South Korea.

But the picture is not so clear- cut when looking at individual countries.

A major British Internet service provider (ISP) told the BBC that immediately after a block was placed on The Pirate Bay in April 2012, piracy-linked activity on its network fell 11 per cent, but it climbed back to just below average levels within a week.

The ISP said this could have been due to dedicated file-sharers instead of casual users.

An appeals court in the Netherlands lifted a ban on The Pirate Bay by two Dutch ISPs in January. This was in part because research suggested that piracy actually rose instead of fell after The Pirate Bay was blocked, reported PC World, a computer magazine.

The Dutch court noted that downloaders were bypassing the block by using other file-sharing services or using virtual private networks (VPNs) that trick the blockade into thinking users are from other countries.

Mr Ang, whose federation represents more than 1,000 producers and distributors of sound recordings, admitted that any initial drop may be followed by "some moderate increase again once more 'hardcore' users find means to circumvent the blocks".

Still, experiences like those in the Netherlands "should not discourage us from at least giving (site blocking) a try", said Associate Professor Saw Cheng Lim from the Singapore Management University's School of Law. "There can be no foolproof measure in the fight against online piracy. The idea is to make life a little more troublesome for Net users who refuse to obtain copyrighted content legitimately."

As more casual downloaders are forced towards alternatives, remaining unblocked piracy sites could end up with higher traffic and slow speeds, said Mr Johnny Koh, 43, who has been using Apple's iTunes to rent movies since it launched here in 2012.

"It can be really easy and cheap to get good-quality legal (content) now. If it takes hours to download a movie from a piracy site, there's no point," added Mr Koh, the manager of a printing company.

Intellectual property lawyer Daniel Lim noted that the message the authorities send by banning access to sites could also increase awareness about the wrongs of piracy.

In Britain, nearly three in five people downloaded or streamed at least one piece of illegal content a year, according to media reports last September.

Experts believe education and easy access to affordable legal content should form the cornerstone of the fight against piracy.

Assistant Professor Liew Kai Khiun from Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information said more promotion of legal sites to consumers is needed. "It's not just about clamping down but how to promote content."

Prof Liew added that selling merchandise, and holding concerts and fan meets could also help and provide singers with new revenue streams.

Some consumers fear censorship could make getting legitimate content an issue. Life sciences research assistant Fong Guo Feng, 26, wants to buy the original Blu-ray discs for popular fantasy drama series Game Of Thrones but he is worried censored scenes for the local version - such as cuts for nudity and violence - could affect his understanding of the plot.

"People who are fans will want to watch the show in its original cut. Not making this cut available here could drive people to online piracy for it," he said.

What is The Pirate Bay?

- Founded in 2003 by Swedish anti-copyright group Piratbyran (The Bureau of Piracy, in English).

- Allows people to connect with one another to share files online. Intended to have more Scandinavian content, but by the end of 2004, 80 per cent of its users were from other parts of the world.

- In 2005, the site was redesigned and made available in several languages. In 2006, the Motion Picture Association of America asked Swedish authorities to take action against The Pirate Bay. Three days after its offices were raided, the site was up again with the help of volunteers around the world.

- In 2009, three co-founders of the site and a financier were convicted of assisting copyright infringement. After an appeal in 2010, they were jailed for between four and 12 months and fined a total of 46 million Swedish kronor (S$8.7 million).

This article was published on April 22 in Digital Life, The Straits Times.

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