About 4700 Australians who illegally downloaded Dallas Buyers Club on the internet over a one-month period in 2014 are likely to be sent letters demanding monetary compensation from the maker of the film.
A Federal Court judge on Tuesday ordered several Australian internet service providers (ISPs), including iiNet, to hand over the identities of thousands of account holders whose internet connections were allegedly used to share the Hollywood film.
Dallas Buyers Club LLC and Voltage Pictures LLC targeted six Australian telcos - iiNet, Internode, Dodo, Amnet, Adam Internet and Wideband Networks - when they sought personal details associated with more than 4700 IP addresses that were used to share the movie using BitTorrent.
But what are the implications of the ruling? Intellectual property lawyer Professor Andrew Christie from Melbourne University explains.
What is the significance of this case?
"It’s the first time that the ISPs have been the subject of a legal action where it wasn’t alleged that they themselves were infringing copyright.
"Instead, in this case, they were told that their clients were infringing copyright and that because the ISPs had information about the clients' identity, they had to tell the copyright owners who their clients were.
"This is one of a number of initiatives that copyright owners are using at the moment. A year or so ago they sued ISPs, saying ISPs themselves were infringing by authorising their customers to download. That case went to the high court and it was completely unsuccessful."
What the implications for consumers in the future?
Professor Christie said the court case was more about the copyright owners sending a strong message to the public, rather than seeking monetary compensation to make up for their losses.
"This is really about being seen to be taking action against illegal downloaders, rather than a very commerically sensible chance to be recovering costs.
"To get this ruling, the copyright owners had to go to court for a couple of days. It cost them a lot of money, just to get to the position where the ISPS could tell them the name and address of people," he said. "The copyright owners are having a gamble here or a bet that enough people will be deterred from further downloading to make the cost of this worthwhile."
"I can’t imagine copyright owners continually choosing to go back to court every time they know the film is being illegally downloaded. I think it’s really a shot across the bows of the public to say, 'We can do this. We've done it once. We might do it again. Be warned.'"
"These actions are meant to be high profile, to be sending messages to people, 'Do not illegally download. If you do, one day you may be sued.' But in practice, the average Australian is no more likely to be sued today than they were last week.
"If they’re not seen to be doing anything, then in a sense people will say to themselves, 'Well, it’s ok to illegally download because the copyright owners don’t care.' So they must be seen to be doing things."
He said it's not financially viable for filmmakers to go to court every time someone makes an illegal download.
"I can’t imagine copyright owners continually choosing to go back to court every time they know the film is being illegally downloaded. I think it's really a shot across the bows of the public to say, 'We can do this. We've done it once. We might do it again. Be warned.'"
Professor Christie said it will be likely that copyright owners from the music and software industries will take advantage of this case so they "can be seen to be doing something" in their battle against illegal downloading.
What’s the legal stance on illegal downloading?
"The basic position is: if you download a movie online, you’re infringing copyright – you’re making a copy of the movie and it’s pretty likely that the copyright owner doesn’t want you to do that. So you’ve made a copy without consent and in copyright law, that's a straightforward case of copyright infringement."
What can you do if you get a letter from the filmmakers?
Depends on what the letter says.
Professor Christie said it’s likely the letter will list the pirated movie and the date of download. It would also ask the person not to illegally download movies in the future, and demand monetary compensation for the loss that the copyright owner has incurred.
You have a choice: you can ignore it, or you can do what’s requested. But if you ignore the letter, you can face legal action.
Voltage Pictures won't go after vulnerable people, for example, people with disabilities or a mental illness. How will they enforce or monitor this process?
Professor Christie said this is part of their "public relations campaign" as monitoring this process will be difficult.
"I don’t know how they will establish that somebody has a disability or a mental illness just by reading their name, as supplied to them by the ISP," he said.
"I think that that statement is part of their broader public relations campaign... They’re trying to seem tough on people who shouldn’t download, but not so tough that we end up hating them."
Will this be enough to deter people from making illegal downloads?
Copyright owners simply don't have the technological solutions to stop illegal downloading, Professor Christie said.
"It's not realistic for them to prevent illegal downloading. That requires technological solutions which to date, have not been successful," he said.
"There’s a cat and mouse game - or an arms race - going on here, technologically. As soon as a copyright owner inserts some kind of locking mechanism, others use technology to unlock that. So technologically, I don’t think that illegal downloading can be prevented."