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Hard and Fast

Home filesharers are next in the legal firing line.

This column appears in the May 06 issue of PC Advisor, available now.

Previously, prosecutions for software piracy have targeted large corporations and counterfeiters. But Fast's latest policy means all illegal fileswappers need to watch their backs.

The outlook for people who are illegally sharing files and making counterfeit copies of software and films took a turn for the worse on two fronts recently.

The first blow came when Fast (Federation against Software Theft) obtained a High Court order requiring 10 ISPs to hand over details of 150 individuals who have been illegally sharing software. By the time you read this, the group of ISPs, which includes Tiscali, BT, Telewest and NTL, will have disclosed their names, addresses and dates of birth. The next step will be for Fast to work with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to bring the accused to court.

What makes these investigations particularly interesting is the fact that they focus on home users. Previous high-profile Fast prosecutions have mainly been against organised counterfeiters or corporate offenders, but the moves appear to indicate a policy of bringing home users into the net as well. It looks as if filesharers' traditional rationale – of continuing to download because there's little chance of one fish in a huge shoal being caught – is no longer valid. And remember that the illegal distribution of copyright works is currently punishable by up to two years' imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.

After a period of sabre-rattling and public warnings, industry enforcers now seem determined to crack down on filesharers in a big way. Julian Heathcote Hobbins, senior legal counsel at Fast, said the current prosecutions are only the first wave of an ongoing strategy. "We expect to be bringing these actions any time and anywhere we see software being misused," he said.

Both Fast and the BPI (British Phonographic Industry) have said home counterfeiters now account for the majority of their investigations.

Meanwhile, John McGowan, the senior investigator in Scotland with Fact (Federation Against Copyright Theft), said illegal copiers cost the film industry an estimated £400m in the UK alone. "If they continue doing it we'll be in their house. We'll take their equipment and take them to court," he said. "We have a massive file of allegations. We will go after them and we will get them."

Fighting talk indeed – and Mr McGowan went on to warn that under current Proceeds of Crime legislation, pirates can be stripped of their assets upon conviction.

A further salvo was recently fired by the Belgian and Swiss police, who co-operated in raids to close down the Razorback2 server, which was part of the eDonkey filesharing network and used by about a third of the system's users. According to the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), the server held an index of 170 million pirated files.

Nobody is naïve enough to think this action is going to cripple the eDonkey network, but it's a serious blow – and indicative of the determination that seems to be widespread among antipiracy organisations and police services. Across the Atlantic the legal sales of music tracks via the internet are soaring.

An American teenager recently made the one-billionth purchase from Apple's iTunes online music service – and official data suggests that internet sales have lead to a decline in the sales of CDs. According to researchers Nielsen Soundscan, 618.9 million albums were sold in 2005, a considerable decrease from the 762.8 million 2001 total. Nielsen reported that traffic on the US iTunes site during 2005 grew by 241 percent.

What does the future hold for filesharers and counterfeiters? I can't see the software, film and music industries letting up now they've tested the water in court. Judges seem ready to exercise their powers to force ISPs to provide the necessary information to prosecutors – and I think we'll hear of many more cases in the near future.

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