French govt. inks MoU to curb online piracy

MUMBAI: The French authorities, together with ISPs and music and video rightsholders, have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to form an independent body that will have the power to suspend or terminate internet access of users persistently downloading content illegally.


 


To create the body, French parliament will have to amend copyright, data protection, telecommunications and consumer protection laws, with a vote on legislation expected as soon as spring 2008. The proposal is the result of an independent review commissioned by the French government and headed by Denis Olivennes, CEO of retail chain FNAC. Under the agreement, ISPs are obliged to provide information on high volume users in helping detect illicit downloading. For each instance of unlawful downloading, a user receives a warning; his/her connection can then be deactivated on a third infringement. The body will publish results of its activities every month to determine its effectiveness. ISPs have also reportedly committed to experimenting with systems that filter out copyrighted content.


As part of the agreement, film rightsholders will reduce the window between a film’s first theatrical screening and its release on DVD in France, from 7.5 to 6 months. Additionally, French music labels have agreed to remove digital rights management on their tracks available through online stores, meaning users can download and play them on virtually every digital audio player.



By comparison, in the Netherlands, authorities backed programmers with grants to come up with Tribler, an open source, cross platform peer-to-peer (P2P) client based on the BitTorrent protocol. The first version of the software was released in March 2006; after further development the latest version of the client was released in August 2007. Dutch public broadcasters are experimenting with distributing programming through the application; meanwhile the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) has been evaluating Tribler as a possible system that its members could use to distribute their radio and television channels online across Europe.


These contrasting developments typify the two faces of P2P. Where the French government which has looked to clamp down on illegal file-sharing, mainly via P2P applications, the Dutch government, along with the EBU and BBC are looking to embrace and promote P2P technology as a cost effective way of distributing legal content.

The French initiative marks one of the first instances where ISPs will likely have to take legal responsibility for monitoring their traffic. The agreement follows a ruling in July 2007 in Belgium which ordered ISP Scarlet to implement filtering technologies to remove and block copyrighted content exchanged by its subscribers using P2P applications (see link).

A number of factors could count against the effectiveness of any ruling. Firstly, forms of illegal content distribution are continually evolving and as such may pass undetected by ISPs. For example, users are moving from unlawful downloading to streaming video on the web – including Hollywood films and hit US television shows. Increasingly, TV shows and movies are uploaded immediately after initial broadcast or theatrical exhibition to video-sharing sites from where others can stream the files.


 


A number of websites – such as TV Links, which was shut down in October 2007 – contain lists of links to a wide range of titles hosted on these video sites to make it easy for users to locate and stream them. While the growing implementation of filtering systems are likely to bring down the number of watermarked, copyrighted videos on video-sharing sites, the large number of sites holding a specific file and the speed at which service providers take down copyrighted files mean that most of the time users are able to find what they want.


 


Alternatively, users of P2P networks may start using techniques such as encrypting video – already a feature of P2P applications such as Azureus and uTorrent – which make it very difficult to detect illegal files. Moreover, given that ISPs on a practical level can only monitor the data of users moving high volumes of traffic, the French initiative is unlikely to affect those sharing illegally via P2P applications infrequently; as such, it is unlikely to act as a significant deterrent.



Access providers nonetheless will be hoping that the deterrent is large enough to reduce bandwidth costs caused in no small part by users unlawfully downloading data-heavy video files; this would balance their enforced investments in content filtering and monitoring procedures. Meanwhile, Hollywood studios and major music labels have traditionally had to resort to pursuing individuals on a case-by-case basis for illegally sharing content online. Having blamed online piracy as playing a large part in denting digital and physical CD and DVD sales, they will be hoping that any new French regulatory body could shore up these revenue streams.

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