Why Should Pirates Sign Up With Comcast?

Photograph by Toby Talbot/AP Photo

Millions of people download pirated versions of popular shows such as Game of Thrones, rather than pay for them. The studios that make the shows hate this fact and have for years tried everything from mass litigation to working with Internet providers to create a “six strikes” regime to punish the pirates. Yet piracy remains a problem.

Now, though, comes an intriguing report that Comcast—a huge corporation that is both internet provider and major studio owner—wants to respond to pirates not with law enforcement tactics, but with sales offers.

According to Variety, Comcast is in talks with ISPs and content owners to create a real-time system that will display pop-up sales messages whenever someone is downloading a show illegally. Full details are unclear but the basic idea seems to involve filling a pirate’s torrent stream with links to legitimate content. Comcast itself has stayed silent about the plan.

If it’s true, the plan represents a major shift in the piracy debate, one that would begin treating piracy as a pricing problem, more than a criminal one. This would jibe with renowned copyright scholar Bill Patry’s theory that the best response to a piracy epidemic is to flood the zone with licensed, affordable content.

Those hoping that this could bring an end to the copyright wars shouldn’t start clicking their heels just yet. That’s because even if Comcast really is having a road-to-Damascus moment, that doesn’t mean its proposed plan is workable—or that the rest of the industry will follow suit.

In the event that Comcast goes forward with the plan, will it rely on deep packet inspection or real-time notification from third parties that track content? And what’s in it for ISPs, which have traditionally resisted efforts to make them police piracy?

As Ars Technica notes, Comcast is not just an ISP but a major content owner that would directly benefit from prodding pirates into buying content. For other ISPs, the benefit is less clear, especially if they receive no commission on sales. And were Comcast to apply the system only to shows it owns (Seinfeld, 30 Rock, and so forth), without applying it to those of competitors, would that become an anti-trust issue?

Finally, how would a real-time sales system affect laws that shelter ISPs from liability for copyright infringement? Many of the balances set out in the current DMCA law are based on the premise that online service providers don’play an active role in what takes place on their servers and networks. Would a real-time sales system, in which ISPs are actively trying to monetize piracy, undo this? Who knows?

The bottom line is that Comcast’s proposal could be a game-changer for a vexing piracy problem. But it’s way too soon to say if the company is serious—or if the plan would actually work.

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