Internet Piracy Warning Program Ditched

John Lister's picture

A controversial program of warning letters for suspected copyright infringers has been dropped. The organization behind it says it was a successful education program but critics say it failed to have much impact.

The "Copyright Alert System" was set up by the Center for Copyright Information, made up of the main producers of TV shows, movies and music in the US. It struck a deal in 2013 with the five largest Internet providers to send up to six warnings to customers after the copyright holders made a complaint of alleged infringement.

The precise format was up to the Internet firm, but the main principle was that the first two messages were simply warnings, the next two required the customer to formally acknowledge having read the message (or lose Internet access until they did so) and the final two would be accompanied by minor sanctions such as slowed speeds.

More Than a Million Warnings Sent

At first it appeared the system was acting as a deterrent. One estimate said that in the first 10 months of the program, 1.3 million people got a first warning, but the numbers for each follow-up dropped and just 37,456 people got the sixth warning.

The Center for Copyright Information says it is dropping the program but notes it "demonstrated that real progress is possible when content creators, Internet innovators and consumer advocates come together in a collaborative and consensus-driven process. CAS succeeded in educating many people about the availability of legal content, as well as about issues associated with online infringement." (Source:

Hardcore Pirates Undeterred

However, the chief lawyer at the Movie Picture Association of America (MPAA) said the system hadn't really worked, mainly because it turned out that a lot of piracy is down to a "hard-core repeat infringer problem." In other words, the people who do the most piracy know full well they are breaking the law and don't take much notice of even repeated warnings (Source:

One big problem with the program appears to be that Internet providers are very wary about cutting off customers for piracy: not just because it means losing business, but because the IP numbers provided as proof of piracy by copyright holders are far from a perfect way of confirming that a particular individual did indeed share or copy files online.

IP addresses are poor indicators of piracy for a number of reasons. First, the use of anonymous virtual private networks (VPNs) make it almost impossible to determine where the originating IP address resides - that's because a VPN essentially acts like a relay. Secondly, IP addresses are leased by Internet providers. That means a specific IP is not chained to a particular computer all the time; instead, they expire after a duration of time (by the Internet provider), they change during a power outage, and they also change if the user unplugs the modem on purpose.

What's Your Opinion?

Are you surprised the program didn't work as well as might have been hoped? Are warnings enough to deter online pirates? Is there an effective but reliable way that copyright holders can tackle piracy?

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Dennis Faas's picture

Not long ago Apple dropped DRM (digital rights media) which effectively encoded music such that it could not be copied or used on other devices. This worked like a 'copyright encoder' in order to "protect" the authors and music industry from piracy. In the long run it was far too restrictive and complicated to achieve because pirates would simply find another way to beat the system. The same holds true today when it comes to downloading pirated movies and music which aren't even DRM protected.

For example, I have personally witnessed Usenet go from a music / movie pirate haven to absolute zero a few years back, when the movie industry (likely the MPAA) started serving copyright infringement notices to Usenet providers, forcing them to delete "offending files" stored on their servers.

At that time, the piracy was so rampant that files would literally spew in waves onto the Usenet servers, which anyone with Usenet access could access. Usenet providers couldn't keep up with the piracy "notices," so they invented an automated system such that affiliates of the movie industry could effectively delete the offending files almost immediately, even after they were saved on Usenet servers.

To one up that, another system was invented to automate the complaints by scanning specific files uploaded to Usenet servers, which was designed to look for bits and pieces of movies. Once a movie was identified, a notice was automatically filed, and the files were deleted off Usenet servers.

Movies and music from Usenet were disappearing fast - that is, until the pirates started obfuscating the filenames (making it impossible to figure out which files belong to which movie), then they made the files difficult to extract on purpose. This effectively disrupted the automated 'notices' which then allowed files to stay on the servers. Once that was done, pirates were back in business sending their wares to the masses.

The moral of the story is: you can try and break the piracy, but pirates (like computer viruses) will evolve and find away around it - which is likely why this piracy warning program was ditched.