When it comes to copyright enforcement, it seems every week we’re learning about new tactics and techniques that are designed to reduce or eliminate copyright infringement online.
Those techniques have run the gamut from massive lawsuit campaigns to new services designed to compete with piracy head-on. We’ve see police raids, site blocking efforts and advertisement campaigns all at the same time.
But for all of the variety in tactics, there are five common, major strategies for copyright enforcement on the Internet. Almost every tactic, tool or approach uses one or more of these strategies to try and reduce copyright infringement online.
While these are definitely broad strokes and can encompass a wide variety of approaches, it’s important to think about how a method is supposed to work before embarking down the path. It can also show how various tactics can overlap and combine to provide multiple vectors for attacking the problem, and offer guidance on what new approaches may be worth trying if you seem to be out of ideas.
On that note, here are the major strategies that are used to enforce copyright online, how they’re supposed to work and some examples of each.
1. Direct Removal
Direct removal is the most simple and basic tactic. It involves finding infringing content online and taking it down. This can take the form of a wide variety of approaches including DMCA takedown notices, ContentID removals on Youtube, lawsuits against infringing companies, police raids against large-scale piracy sites and much more.
The basic goal of the direct removal method is the complete removal of the infringing content, whether it is done on a broad, site-wide level or a surgical, single-file level.
To use an analogy we will come back to, if we think of infringing content like a physical business engaged in illegal activity, direct removal is akin to closing the business or even razing it completely.
Advantages: Results in complete removal of the infringing material. It can’t be accessed again from that source. Once removed, the content is instantly unavailable globally.
Disadvantages: For popular content, the files are likely to be reuploaded almost immediately at another location, often on the same site. Difficulties with international jurisdiction make it difficult or impossible to remove all infringing files, leaving many copies online regardless of how much effort is applied.
2. Blocking/Restricting Access
This strategy is relatively new in terms of mass piracy enforcement, but the basic idea is that, rather than removing the infringing files, sites or services, one simply tries to block or restrict access to it.
In recent months a spate of countries have moved to block access to infringing sites, most commonly The Pirate Bay, at the ISP level. However, smaller-scale efforts to block access to infringing content have been around for decades as businesses, schools and households have filtered out domains and networks that carry infringing content.
To continue the analogy, while a direct removal method attempts to raze the business, this approach attempts to block the roads that lead to it, preventing people from accessing it, even though it is still there.
Advantages: In countries where it is available, one court order can get a site blocked nationwide. This makes it quick to implement and relatively inexpensive from a legal cost perspective.
Disadvantages: Only works in the location that the site is blocked and is impractical globally. Methods for circumventing such blockades are well-known and widely-used by dedicated infringers and the movement/relocation of sites means that such blocks have to be regularly updated. Also, such blocks are unpopular with internet users and legislation enabling it is widely protested.
3. Hide Infringing Content
Rather than removing or blocking access to pirated material, many copyright holders work solely to make the infringing files harder to find. This is commonly done not only by removing infringing results from search engines, but also by targeting sites that point to locations where infringing content may be found.
Going back to the above analogy, this would be similar to removing the business from an address book or tearing down signs pointing to it, making it more difficult to locate.
This has become a hot topic in recent years as many copyright holders have begun to challenge Google to do more to combat piracy and increasing efforts have been made to target linking sites and communities that provide guides on where to find infringing material online.
Advantages: Since there are only a handful of search engines, a great deal can be done with only reaching out to a small number of search providers. Also, since a lot of piracy is out of convenience, this can push people to legitimate alternatives that are now easier to find.
Disadvantages: Legislation is inconsistent globally on this issue and Google, according to most, has been a dubious partner in the fight. Also, as with direct removals, infringing content can be reuploaded and reindexed almost immediately.
4. Follow the Money
A newer tactic that has received a great deal of press in recent moths has been the “follow the money” approach to combatting piracy. While it may, in extreme cases, result in the closure of infringing sites, similar to the direct removal method, this isn’t a matter of targeting infringing files or sites for deletion, but about making the piracy economy less lucrative and hospitable.
This takes many shapes including the closing of accounts used by piracy-oriented sites, cutting advertising revenue and disabling access to payment processors. Regardless of the method, the goal is to stifle the flow of incoming cash. This has the impact of dissuading new people from setting up pirate sites, encouraging those currently operating such sites to close down (making the risk no longer worth the reward) and also limit the ability of such sites to grow and improve.
Going back to the analogy, this is akin to hurting the businesses’ ability to receive funds, which could cause them to either close down voluntarily or, in extreme cases, go bankrupt and be foreclosed upon. However, even if it doesn’t do that, it makes that type of business less lucrative, discouraging others from entering it.
Advantages: A relatively small number of large intermediaries offer easy choke points to cut off most funding. Since high-traffic pirate sites tend to be expensive to operate, even a modest reduction in cash flow can force a site out of business or make the meager rewards not worth the serious risks.
Disadvantages: Results are unpredictable and heavily delayed. May take months or years to see any benefit. Also, with cryptocurrenciess such as Bitcoin becoming more common, many infringing sites have found ways to keep at least some revenue coming in after being cut off from traditional sources.
5. Demand-Side Efforts
Finally, copyright holders have the option of not targeting the pirate sites or infringing files at all and, instead, targeting the demand side of piracy by reducing the number of people who are tempted to seek out infringing content.
This strategy can take both carrot and stick approaches. This includes everything from providing competitive services that woo would-be pirates away from infringing sites and lawsuits against individual file sharers. Anything targeted directly at potential infringers, from Spotify to the Copyright Alert System, are demand-side efforts at reducing piracy.
Using the same analogy, this is akin to simply dissuading people from going to the infringing business. Meaning that, while the business may still be open, it’s not doing as much harm.
Advantages: Increased legitimate alternatives have been proven to slow the growth of piracy and also open up new business opportunities. Light handed punitive methods, such as copyright alerts, can often be very effective at educating and informing consumers about legitimate alternatives.
Disadvantages: Heavy-handed demand-side tactics often draw strong criticism and become public relations nightmares. Also, at some point, it’s no longer economically viable to try and reach out to would-be pirates as the ones who remain are not valuable enough to justify the sacrifices.
All of these strategies have their strengths and weaknesses. None of these offer a perfect solution to the issue of online piracy and none of them are the single best answer. Ideally, a combination of strategies needs to be employed to find the best way to reduce piracy on the Web.
However, it’s important to note that different tactics with each strategy can have very different impulses. Where the RIAA’s efforts to sue file sharers and launch Spotify are both example of a demand-side strategy, the results have been wildly different in terms of impact and response.
Still, before you employ any anti-piracy tactic, you have to know what its goal is and, when it comes to fighting piracy, there are only a handful of goals out there.
So choose your strategies well and pick tactics that can best meet them, if you do that, you’ll likely be much more successful than many others who simply attacked without thinking about their end goal.