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What to Do if You Get a Legal Letter from the Motion Picture Association of America


There are a lot of grey areas of the Internet, as it is a relatively new, ever-evolving entity. But the movie industry, in reaction to the shock that hit the music industry the day Napster launched, is cracking down on illegal downloading, which they see very much as a black-and-white issue. 

At the height of Napster, 57 million users were sharing free music and the music industry executives and the artists themselves were reeling in disbelief. The music industry as we then knew it was turned upside down overnight. 

If you are a generation X or Gen Y’er and you were around during this era, it was actually very exciting. People who shared music on Napster were not about “stealing,” they simply wanted a chance to have access to all the music that was “out there,” and thus began the paradigm shift that led to iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify. 

Steve Jobs felt this sea change in the world of music and entertainment–he understood what was at the root of it, and he spoke about it at the All Things Digital Conference in 2007: “I think people want to enjoy their entertainment when they want it and how they want it, on the device that they want it on. So ultimately, that’s going to drive the entertainment companies into all sorts of different business models … If you’re a content company, that’s a great thing – more people wanting to, you know, enjoy your content more often in more different ways, that’s why you’re in business. But the transitions are hard sometimes.”

When it comes to piracy, people generally seem to have a good grasp of how stealing works, and that it is illegal, but somehow in the safety of their own homes they may kid themselves that they can get away with stuff without getting caught. And again, there’s that “grey area,” where consumers may have a sense of entitlement to check out all the cool content out there. Some of them may be kids or teenagers who don’t fully grasp the risk of what they are doing. 

And oh, the temptation! There are exciting premieres, like Game of Thrones that people do not want to miss out on. Perhaps that is why the  Game of Thrones premiere saw a staggering 90 million (!) illegal downloads. The penultimate season was illegally viewed over one billion times — and that might be a conservative number.

Most of the mass sharing happens by torrenting. If you’ve never heard of torrenting, it’s a group of computers downloading and uploading the same BitTorrent–transferring data between each other without the use of a central server. The content is not intact as a file, rather it is in pieces–bits–that are uploaded and downloaded within a network.

How rampant is this activity?

According to The Motion Picture Association of America, Why Copyright Matters, since Bit Torrent launched in 2001, copyright infringement has been a huge threat to the music and film industry. Industry supporters of legislation like SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and Protect IP Act claimed that the illegal downloading of music and films costs the American economy somewhere between $200- $250 billion dollars and over 750,000 jobs annually. 

If by chance you have gotten into the habit of illegally downloading movies or television shows, you should probably expect that you will get caught. 

How does this happen?

Your ISP (Internet Service Provider) is basically big brother–they are hip to the sites you visit, how long you visit, the content you download and the content you share. So the letter you receive may either be from a studio or the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), but more likely the letter will come from your ISP, who has been contacted by these folks and alerted of your illegal activity. Your ISP does not want to get in trouble for your illegal activity, and they are pissed.

Should you care?

Um, yeah. You should! You should take the letter seriously. Whether you’re a distributor or a mere downloader, you have actually broken the law if you have downloaded content for free that studios and networks charge people to see. 

Sh*$ is getting real in Canada.

In Canada, thousands of individuals have been sued for file sharing in the past two years. And the US may not be far behind. Since 2015 it is the law that your ISP must notify you that they have been contacted about alleged illegal behavior on your part. 

Since the emails seem fairly harmless, many people tend to ignore them. 

Here’s the deal:

This is not a good idea. Your next email may inform you that the copyright holder is planning to sue. According to an article in the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “Now, studios are identifying an IP address, suing the unknown person associated with that address and then getting a Norwich order through the Federal Court of Canada against the internet service provider to obtain the customer’s name and address.”

Canadians can, and do, get charged up to a maximum of $5,000.

If you live in the US and you receive a letter from your ISP it may sound something like this:

“We are writing to inform you that [your ISP] recently received notification from a copyright owner of a copyright violation that appears to involve [your ISP account]. The work(s) identified by the copyright owner in its complaint are listed below.

We are contacting you because our records indicate that the Internet Protocol (IP) address provided to us by the copyright owner was assigned to your service on the date and time identified by the copyright owner.”

“Please note that we have not provided any of your private information to the copyright holder at this time. [ISP] will not provide your identifying information without a lawful subpoena or other lawful process. However, upon receipt of a lawful subpoena or other lawful process [your ISP] will release your information to the copyright owner.”

So now what?

  • First things first, cease and desist, if you are indeed downloading stuff illegally. 
  • If you are not, check out what other people in your household are doing. Even if they are not involved, perhaps they are sharing passwords or accounts with friends who are taking advantage. That needs to stop.
  • Be aware that there are scams out there. According to online publication MakeUseOf, some copyright infringement notices contain a notice of payment, causing people to panic and pay without considering if the letter is real. 
  • For instance, scammers piggybacking on the HBO Game of Thrones IP-Echelon copyright infringement sent thousands of scam emails including a direct settlement fee of $150 for the alleged copyright infraction.
  • If you receive a threatening email that does not seem legit, do some research and check it out before sending anyone money.
  • If the letter is legitimate, and you are being fined, you may want to consult a lawyer. Either way, you can choose to fight it and go to court, pay it, or settle it for a lesser amount if it is shown that you do not have money.
  • The US, unlike Canada, has generally not gone down the road of massive fines being levied. If you receive a letter saying that your illegal activity was noticed, consider it a warning. Then, go on your merry (legal) way and hopefully, that will be the last you will hear from them. 

The bottom line: 

Give the people what they want! 

This doesn’t mean piracy is OK, but the lesson to be learned is not just on the part of the downloader, it’s on the makers of the entertainment to understand the wants and needs of the consumer. Though there are plenty of outraged musicians who have fought illegal downloads, there are those like Neil Young who acknowledge, as Steve Jobs did, that the times are a changing: It doesn’t affect me because I look at the internet as the new radio. I look at the radio as gone. […] Piracy is the new radio. That’s how music gets around. […] That’s the radio. If you really want to hear it, let’s make it available, let them hear it, let them hear the 95 percent of it.”

After the Game of Thrones debacle, HBO responded to the problem by making the show available on several platforms, via HBO cable/streaming, Amazon, Hulu, or next-day purchase options like iTunes. Hopefully, with programming becoming more accessible viewers will be less inclined to download movies and shows illegally and the scary letters will cease and desist. 

*Please Note*  This article is purely informational, based on research. This is not intended to be taken as legal advice. Should you have legal concerns it is always best to consult an attorney.

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