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Copygate: secrets revealed, confidence eroded

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Opinions Writer

Climategate, which involved the illegal hacking and release of thousand of emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit, was one of last year’s hottest news stories. Credibility — rightly or wrongly — was lost. But who can we trust if not impartial, evidence-driven natural scientists? Well, certainly not lawyers!

Once again, Britain is host to a hacking debacle that has exposed the seamy side to a critical public policy issue. This time the topic is copyright — or, more to the point, what the Government of Canada calls “current digital era copyright protection.”

In brief, just before the recent British election, the government of the day rushed through the Digital Economy Act. Among other things it requires Internet service providers to reveal to copyright proprietors the name of any customer whose IP address was allegedly used to illegally download copyrighted works. This spawned a new breed of legal practitioners, what has come to be known as the copyright troll, essentially a legal expert who enforces copyrights with undue aggression for the sole purpose of making money through litigation.

Acting on behalf of copyright proprietors, a British law firm called ACS Law sent out thousands of letters to alleged infringers threatening them with legal action unless they admitted their guilt and paid from $500 and up. It was estimated that it would cost as much as $16,000 to fight such an allegation in court. Many paid; no legal action was taken against those who did not. 

This amounts to what Nate Anderson of Wired Magazine calls “legal blackmail.” As an aside, ACS Law uses results of software developed by a mysterious German firm called Guardaley which is the same firm that supplies results to members of the recently formed US Copyright Group and other American copyright trolls such as Righthaven LLC of Las Vegas.

In an attack called “Operation Payback,” the Internet community 4chan shut down the websites of the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America in the United States as well as ACS Law in Britain. When ACS Law re-launched, it inadvertently exposed the server’s directory and 4chan promptly uploaded a 350MB archive of ACS Law’s emails and then posted them on the web. 

These included names, addresses, credit card details and other private information of ISP customers. In addition many alleged infringements involved porno movies whose titles are included in the hacked personal files of ISP clients. True or false, for a teacher or many others to have such information publicly disclosed could be a career ender.  The emails also reveal the practices and profits of a major copyright troll, causing outrage in Britain.

While the outcome of “Copygate” remains to be seen, one thing is clear.  Adopting “current digital era copyright protection” creates a window of opportunity for the malpractice of what might be dubbed “private law.” To fight allegations of copyright infringement, the price of justice — of proving one’s innocence — is so high most simply pay, intimidated by the exorbitant costs. This has spawned an entirely new, highly-profitable and opportunistic attitude toward legal practice.

We live in a human environment composed of information, much of which is subject to copyright protection. Climate change in the knowledge-based economy is already underway; it is human-made and in the U.S. and Britain it has become poisonously litigious. Canadians will soon have their say on Bill C-32, the proposed Copyright Reform Act.

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image: Flickr


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