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August 6, 2012

Stopping online piracy is like playing the world's largest game of Whac-A-Mole. Hit one, countless others appear. Quickly. And the mallet is heavy and slow. Take as an example YouTube, where the Recording Industry Association of America almost rules with an iron fist, but doesn't, because of deceptions like the one involving a cat.

YouTube, which is owned by Google, offers a free tool to the movie studios and television networks called Content ID. When a studio legitimately uploads a clip from a copyrighted film to YouTube, the Google tool automatically finds and blocks copies of the product. To get around this roadblock, some YouTube users started placing copyrighted videos inside a still photo of a cat that appears to be watching an old JVC television set. The Content ID algorithm has a difficult time seeing that the video is violating any copyright rules; it just sees a cat watching TV. Sure, it's annoying for those who want to watch the video, but it works. (Obviously, it's more than annoying for the company whose product is being pirated.) Then there are those - possibly tens of millions of users, actually - who engage in peer-to-peer file-sharing on the sites using the BitTorrent protocol.

Earlier this year, after months of legal wrangling, authorities in a number of countries won an injunction against the Pirate Bay, probably the largest and most famous BitTorrent piracy site on the Web. The order blocked people from entering the site. In retaliation, the Pirate Bay wrapped up the code that runs its entire Web site, and offered it as a free downloadable file for anyone to copy and install on their own servers. People began setting up hundreds of new versions of the site, and the piracy continues unabated. Thus, whacking one big mole created hundreds of smaller ones.

Although the recording industries might believe they're winning the fight, the Pirate Bay and others are continually one step ahead. In March, a Pirate Bay collaborator, who goes by the online name Mr. Spock, announced in a blog post that the team hoped to build drones that would float in the air and allow people to download movies and music through wireless radio transmitters. "This way our machines will have to be shut down with aeroplanes in order to shut down the system," Mr. Spock posted on the site. "A real act of war." Some BitTorrent sites have also discussed storing servers in secure bank vaults. Message boards on the Web devoted to piracy have in the past raised the idea that the Pirate Bay has Web servers stored underwater. "Piracy won't go away," said Ernesto Van Der Sar, editor of Torrent Freak, a site that reports on copyright and piracy news. "They've tried for years and they'll keep on trying, but it won't go away." Mr. Van Der Sar said companies should stop trying to fight piracy and start experimenting with new ways to distribute content that is inevitably going to be pirated anyway.

According to Torrent Freak, the top pirated TV shows are downloaded several million times a week. Unauthorized movies, music, e-books, software, pornography, comics, photos and video games are watched, read and listened to via these piracy sites millions of times a day. The copyright holders believe new laws will stop this type of piracy. But many others believe any laws will just push people to find creative new ways of getting the content they want. "There's a clearly established relationship between the legal availability of material online and copyright infringement; it's an inverse relationship," said Holmes Wilson, co-director of Fight for the Future, a nonprofit technology organization that is trying to stop new piracy laws from disrupting the Internet. "The most downloaded television shows on the Pirate Bay are the ones that are not legally available online."

The hit HBO show "Game of Thrones" is a quintessential example of this. The show is sometimes downloaded illegally more times each week than it is watched on cable television. But even if HBO put the shows online, the price it could charge would still pale in comparison to the money it makes through cable operators. Mr. Wilson believes that the big media companies don't really want to solve the piracy problem. "If every TV show was offered at a fair price to everyone in the world, there would definitely be much less copyright infringement," he said. "But because of the monopoly power of the cable companies and content creators, they might actually make less money."

The way people download unauthorized content is changing. In the early days of music piracy, people transferred songs to their home or work computers. Now, with cloud-based sites, like Wuala, uTorrent and Tribler, people stream movies and music from third-party storage facilities, often to mobile devices and TV's. Some of these cloud-based Web sites allow people to set up automatic downloads of new shows the moment they are uploaded to piracy sites. It's like piracy-on-demand. And it will be much harder to trace and to stop.

It is only going to get worse. Piracy has started to move beyond the Internet and media and into the physical world. People on the fringes of tech, often early adopters of new devices and gadgets, are now working with 3-D printers that can churn out actual physical objects. Say you need a wall hook or want to replace a bit of hardware that fell off your luggage. You can download a file and "print" these objects with printers that spray layers of plastic, metal or ceramics into shapes. And people are beginning to share files that contain the schematics for physical objects on these BitTorrent sites. Although 3-D printing is still in its infancy, it is soon expected to become as pervasive as illegal music downloading was in the late 1990s.

Content owners will find themselves stuck behind ancient legal walls when trying to stop people from downloading objects online as copyright laws do not apply to standard physical objects deemed "noncreative." In the arcade version of Whac-A-Mole, the game eventually ends - often when the player loses. In the piracy arms-race version, there doesn't seem to be a conclusion. Sooner or later, the people who still believe they can hit the moles with their slow mallets might realize that their time would be better spent playing an entirely different game. New York Times

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