What is it?

In late February of this year, the 'Six Strikes' Copyright Alert System (CAS) was rolled out in the United States. The scheme is the latest adaptation of the international concept of a 'graduated response program' – a framework for media owners to address alleged online copyright infringements with computer users through their internet service providers (ISPs).

The CAS was established by the Center for Copyright Information (CCI), a coalition made up of big industry players: the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the five major ISPs in the United States - AT&T, Cablevision, Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon. The focus of the scheme is educating the public about copyright policies in the digital age, signalling a new approach to the deterrence of online piracy. It is aimed at everyday, casual file-sharers – and presumes that 'hardcore pirates' are beyond detection because of their use of Virtual Private Networks or proxies that help conceal their identity.

How does it work?

Rights owners monitor downloading of their copyright material online by joining peer-to-peer networks and locating content that they own. If they notice that a file is being shared illegally, they notify the appropriate ISP who, in turn, issues a Copyright Alert to the relevant account holder. No personal information is shared between the rights holder and the ISP at this stage.

The purpose of issuing Copyright Alerts is to:

  • Make an account holder aware that unlawful content sharing may have occurred on their account
  • Educate account holders on how they can prevent copyright infringement from happening again
  • Provide account holders with information about ways to access digital content legally.

The CCI is of the view that after receiving one alert, most account holders will take the appropriate steps to avoid additional alerts. The system allows an account holder to receive multiple alerts detecting online piracy before more serious action can be taken.

After an account holder has received three warnings, 'mitigation measures' can be taken by the ISP. These repressive measures may include a temporary reduction in internet speed, a temporary downgrade in internet service tier, or redirection to a landing page for a set period of time, until an account holder contacts the ISP or completes an online copyright education program. Each ISP has the ability to decide what measures they will take, although no ISPs have indicated that they will permanently disconnect repeat infringers as part of the scheme.

ISPs have wide discretion as to what mitigation measures to take. They also have wide discretion as to when to take these mitigation measures against an account holder – more severe measures may be taken at different stages as appropriate. However, if the ISP has not taken any mitigation measures after six alerts, it must do so at this stage. The ISPs will not release any personal information about the account holder during this process, unless the MPAA or RIAA decide to sue that person and obtain a court order requiring the ISP to disclose the account holder's information.

How effective is it?

In a recent blog report, the CCI claimed that initial responses from consumers in the three months since the launch of the new system have been both productive and positive. ISPs have been able to actively help account holders take the necessary steps to protect their accounts from being used for illegal behaviour. At this early stage, however, the jury is out on how wide reaching the scheme's effectiveness will be long term. In New Zealand, where our system is based on penalising illegal conduct rather than education, only 20 cases were received by the Copyright Tribunal in the 12 months before February 2013, eight of which were withdrawn. It will be interesting to see which approach is the more successful in deterring online piracy over time.