On March 29, the Madras High Court issued a “John Doe” order — a comprehensive set of protections against unknown potential offenders — in response to a suit from Chennai-based Copyright Labs. The order named 15 major internet service providers in India, and directed that access be cut off to pirated versions of two recent South Indian movies — the Tamil-language 3, from RK Productions, and the Telegu-language Dammu. In response, several of the ISPs shut off access to several websites, including torrent sites (that use BitTorrent’s technology to speed up the downloading of files) like Piratebay.com; video sharing sites like Vimeo and Dailymotion; and even text-sharing sites like pastebin.com. Obviously, most of these internet service providers overreacted. Instead of cutting off access to specific links that hosted illegally pirated content, they shut off access to entire websites, some of them totally unrelated. Indian internet users were enraged. Some even got together to hit the websites of the Supreme Court of India, the All India Congress Committee, and the Department of Telecommunications with distributed denial of service attacks, taking them down for hours at a time.
RK Productions was concerned that 3, starring Dhanush and directed by his wife Aishwariya, the daughter of superstar Rajnikanth, would have lower-than-expected ticket sales due to internet users illegally accessing digital copies of their movie through torrent sites. Oddly enough, the court order was implemented more than a month and a half after the movie’s release, making the whole question moot. In any case, shutting down peer-to-peer file sharing is increasingly difficult. Closing the wildly popular music-sharing site Napster a decade ago was easy, as it hosted the location of pirated files on a central server. However, newer torrent sites like Piratebay host no illegal content; they offer a central “tracking” mechanism that allows users to exchange files. In any case, numerous mirror sites, and proxy servers or virtual private networks allow surfers to evade blocked sites — just ask the Chinese government. Today, some estimates suggest that 70 per cent of internet traffic is driven by torrent-hungry surfers. The collateral damage of the ISPs’ actions was also considerable; sites like Vimeo, for example, host user-generated content that is uploaded for any member of the site to view. Even the office of the US president uses it for public relations. Clearly, the ISPs are out of their depth. Should photo-copier machines also be banned, simply because they theoretically allow copying of a best-selling novel? What about digital scanners? Should they be disallowed too?
It is necessary, therefore, to think through the legal and practical issues here carefully, while acknowledging and privileging the moral right of creators to be compensated for their work. Some creators of content, like the British band Radiohead, have tried to search for alternative ways to monetise their content in a world in which digital copying is rife. The makers of 3 were actually in a position to experiment similarly — the movie became nationally known thanks to the viral hit “Kolaveri”. Meanwhile, future attempts to curb piracy cannot remain clumsy. That isn’t just common sense; it’s also the law. Some experts have pointed out that the Information Technology Act of 2000 allows for hefty fines, and even criminal charges to be filed against the management of ISPs that block access to legitimate sites. The IT and media industries have to be much more careful in how they respond to the growing menace of piracy.