MPAA Goes After the Wrong Target

Hey, did you know that you can find music and movies online, usually for free, if you just take the time to learn how to search for it? If not, maybe one of the movie studios or record labels will alert you to that fact soon. In fact, it sure looks like they're trying their best to tell you about the opportunity.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) have been waging war on illegal media copying for years now, and I seriously doubt that their chosen strategy is the best way to go about it.

Today, the process of piracy elimination is fairly simple. One of the industry-group member companies, such as Vivendi Universal (NYSE: V  ) , Sony Pictures (NYSE: SNE  ) , or Warner Music Group (NYSE: WMG  ) , assigns an employee to fire up a file-sharing program and find illegal copies of materials under the company's own copyright. The find is documented, and then mass filings of John Doe lawsuits ensue. When Internet service providers are willing or compelled to identify who owns the offending IP addresses, the suit may go to court, but it's usually settled before going that far.

This strategy can backfire on occasion, as in the case of Universal v. Shawn Hogan. Hogan, the owner of software firm Digital Point Solutions, was hit with a lawsuit accusing him of downloading an illegal version of Meet the Fockers, which he denies having done. In most cases, the lawsuit target settles out of court for a few thousand dollars, the case is dropped, and that's the end of that. Hogan is a multimillionaire, well-versed in the technology involved, and dead set on defending his honor no matter what the cost.

He seems interested in setting a legal precedent here. Maybe the MPAA bit off more than it could chew with its blind fumbling for alleged miscreants. So far, very few cases have gone to trial, and even those normally end up settled on the side. This has the potential of becoming the Roe v. Wade of file sharing, if you will, the precedent that every following case might point to. If Hogan wins, it might spell the end of the entertainment industry's scare tactics, though the reverse outcome could have some disturbing implications for our right of fair use, privacy, and other inconvenient sections of the Constitution.

The lawsuits have not been able to stop file-sharing or the pirating of movies or music. In fact, they may have only served to raise awareness of the fact that it can be done. Hogan, for one, says that he started researching how to undertake the misdeed of which he'd been accused. Every misfire like Shawn Hogan, or the case of the RIAA going after a deceased grandmother, probably hurts the cause more than it helps. Cassette tapes and blank CDs didn't kill the music industry, and the VHS tape actually made a lot of money for the movie industry. The Internet isn't the enemy -- until you make it the enemy.

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Fool contributorAnders Bylund holds no position in the companies discussed here. Foolish disclosureis always on the up-and-up. Check outAnders' holdings for yourself -- he's got nothing to hide.

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