Online cloud-computing storage facilities known as ‘cyberlockers’ have positioned themselves as convenient services for housing – and in some cases sharing – large data files. As such, they have become a new avenue of exploitation for that persistent band of intentional copyright infringers known as pirates, who have used them to distribute illegal copies of films and songs.
As most cyberlockers provide one-to-one connectivity, they are very hard to monitor and chase, unlike file-sharing services with wide-funnel audiences such as BitTorrent, or previous NewLegal Review subject The Pirate Bay. Concerns over the role of cyberlockers in IP abuse came to the fore in January, with moves by the US Department of Justice (DoJ) to shut down popular platform Megaupload – brainchild of convicted fraudster Kim Dotcom. In a statement following its action, the DoJ estimated that Megaupload had netted around $175m in criminal proceeds and caused $0.5bn of financial damage to the content industry.
In early April, though, leading player Dropbox – launched in 2008 – announced that it had picked up substantial investment from no less a duo than Bono and The Edge of rock band U2, working through their Elevation Partners funding outfit. Their presence in the Dropbox orbit indicates that it has a clean bill of health, reputation-wise, and that not all cyberlockers should be tarred with the Kim Dotcom brush.
But Megaupload nonetheless left its well-intentioned competitors with the conundrum of how best to avoid the same accusations of unlawfully reproducing infringing copies of copyrighted works. In the wake of the shutdown, Filesonic.com decided to cancel all third-party downloads, diminishing its own service offering, and blocked all access to its US website, greeting visitors with a message saying: ‘sorry about that.’
And it wasn’t even their fault.
Among the most serious DoJ allegations against Megaupload was that it had cultivated “a rewards program that would provide users with financial incentives to upload popular content and drive web traffic to the site – often through user-generated websites known as linking sites”. According to DoJ investigators, the site’s managers “paid users whom they specifically knew uploaded infringing content and publicised their links to [other] users throughout the world”.
By actively stimulating third-party linking sites to advertise infringing content, said the DoJ, Megaupload did not need to do that dirty work itself. Instead, it chose to conceal its actions. In the DoJ’s assessment, the site’s webmasters “manipulated the perception of content available on their servers by not providing a public search function on the Megaupload site, and by not including popular infringing content on publicly available lists of top content downloaded by users”. The material was freely available – but only listed on affiliate websites.
Alongside the shutdown, the DoJ undertook seizures of 18 domain names with links to the Megaupload operation, demonstrating yet again the increasing interplay between copyright laws and the domains community – and the potential for any enforcement action on behalf of copyright holders to have a sizeable footprint on affected web addresses.
So, following the Megaupload watershed – and returning to the original problem – how should legitimate service providers stay on the right side of the law while allowing their users to make the most of the technology they have signed up for?
Although it could be a valuable tool for positively cultivating and engaging audiences, a reward system for introducing popular content may now be seen to have legal complications, just by creating the suspicion that copyright infringement is underway. While web users do occasionally self-generate film clips or songs that seize the popular imagination, excerpts from movies and TV shows or works by established musicians tend to be a short cut to the same outcome.
Clearly, being seen to provide safeguards against pirates is the key challenge for this growth area of the digital world, which could follow the social networking phenomenon as the next great online meeting place. In the same month that Dropbox secured capital from Elevation Partners, it triggered consternation by unveiling a tool that enabled users to share content. Instantly, some technology bloggers began to question the difference between the freshly financed platform and Megaupload. However, Dropbox allayed those concerns by revealing its sharing tool’s security features.
Bandwidth limits on material from public links are restricted to 20GB per day for users of free accounts users and 200GB per day for users of premium accounts – constraints that will help to curb widespread piracy as data that hits those limits will be suspended or blocked. This is likely to deter users from exchanging whole, pirated films or albums – although ebooks could, in theory, slip through the net as their file sizes are much smaller.
Responsible cloud-storage services would also be advised to honour their obligations under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which include responding quickly to notices from rights holders who are concerned that their content may have been pirated, and conducting any necessary investigations that may be required in the wake of those notices. For its part, Dropbox has provided copyright guidelines to its users, and warned them: ‘If you repeatedly share files that infringe others’ copyrights, your account will be terminated.’