Why the End of the RIAA Lawsuits Won’t Change Anything

rr-copyright-noticeThe Recording Industry Association of America has decided to end its five-year-long lawsuit campaign against music file sharers, the Wall Street Journal reported today, with the major record labels opting to instead work with ISPs to combat the practice. Some major ISPs have apparently already agreed to take part in a graduated response program: Share once, and you’ll get a slap on the wrist. Get caught the third time, and your contract gets canceled.

Mathew Ingram over at GigaOM thinks this is a bad idea because it privatizes copyright enforcement, meaning that alleged offenders won’t have any clear recourse when they’re wrongly accused. That’s true, and definitely something to be worried about, but it’s not exactly new. ISPs took on the role of copyright cops a long time ago; for some, the new agreement only formalizes policies that are already in place. And not much changes for the users, either. They can still get sued, despite the agreement. And yet, they will still continue to share music, and a whole lot of video as well.

There are many things we don’t know yet about the RIAA’s new copyright policies. The organization isn’t sharing too many details, it would only tell the Wall Street Journal that it had “agreements in principle” with some ISPs, and that these ISPs may cut off Internet access after two or three warnings, a measure known as “three strikes.” The truth is, however, that some ISPs have already been doing this for months.

Take RoadRunner, for example. Customers of the Time Warner-owned (s twx) cable ISP caught infringing once get a warning email. The second warning is delivered in the form of a temporary suspension of the customer’s Internet access, according to reports from those affected. Road Runner simply redirects all of their web page requests to a customized proxy page that informs them about their alleged infringement, complete with the warning that “RoadRunner has a policy of terminating the accounts of repeat copyright offenders.”

Infringe three times, and you’ll have to call the ISP to explain yourself in person, the page warns. Fellow cable ISP Cox (s cxr) uses a similar splash page that orders customers to delete the file in question and disable file any file-sharing software — something that would most likely be seen as destruction of evidence if the customer ever faced a lawsuit related to the infringement.

But there won’t be anymore lawsuits, right? Wrong. First of all, the RIAA reserves the right to sue repeat infringers or users that are “particularly heavy file sharers,” according to the Journal. Also, the music of the major labels is far from the only thing shared on P2P networks, and other content owners are more than eager to fill the void and start their own lawsuit campaigns.

Witness the UK, where the music industry brokered similar agreements with ISPs. The country has seen an explosion of copycat lawsuits in recent months. Most of these lawsuits are related to shared porn, video games and similar content, and initiated by a single copyright enforcement company that promises its customers to “turn piracy into profit” through costly out-of-court settlements — a tactic that was pioneered by the RIAA.

Finally, we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking that people will stop sharing files because they receive a warning from their ISP. Companies like Comcast (s cmcsa) have been sending out countless warning messages on behalf of major movie studios and TV networks via email for years, and video file-sharing is as popular as ever.

Users that face termination of their service due to P2P activity will just stop using P2P, not stop downloading movies and music. This means a whole lot of people will make a whole lot of money: Usenet providers will get more premium customers, one-click-hosters and Russian YouTube clones will sell more advertising. The only one left out will be content owners that concentrate on enforcement instead of monetization, which is just like it’s always been.