Torrent websites: New warning on blocked URLs may still fail to prevent piracy

By Asheeta Regidi

According to reports, a website blocked in India now hosts a new warning, which threatens to jail people accessing blocked URLs for 3 years and give a fine for Rs. 3 lakhs. Internet users fear that because of this warning, now even viewing illegal content can land them in jail.

The warning issued is as follows:

"This URL has been blocked under the instructions of the Competent Government Authority or in compliance with the orders of a Court of competent jurisdiction. Viewing, downloading, exhibiting or duplicating an illicit copy of the contents under this URL is punishable as an offence under the laws of India, including but not limited to under Sections 63, 63-A, 65 and 65-A of the Copyright Act, 1957 which prescribe imprisonment for 3 years and also fine of upto Rs. 3,00,000/-. Any person aggrieved by any such blocking of this URL may contact at who will, within 48 hours, provide you the details of relevant proceedings under which you can approach the relevant High Court or Authority for redressal of your grievance"

Laws quoted in the warning are nothing new

The laws quoted in the warning are nothing but standard laws preventing copyright infringement. In any case, it is not possible for the government to ‘create’ a new law merely through the issue of a warning. The warning essentially summarises the existing laws which can apply to a person illegally accessing copyright protected material:

1. Downloading and sharing pirated content
Under Indian copyright law, merely viewing copyright protected content is not an offence. To be accused of copyright infringement, you need to do something further, such as downloading the content. So if you watch a pirated movie on Youtube, you are not violating the law, but if you save it to your phone, you are guilty of copyright infringement. The same happens if you share the video with a friend- then you are guilty of copyright infringement by distributing the illegal content. Downloading, uploading and sharing pirated movies and music on filesharing sites is also illegal and punishable under these laws.

2. Indirect viewing of blocked sites
A new law introduced in 2012, Section 65A of the Copyright Act, 1957, punishes the ‘circumvention of technological measures’. In the current issue of illegal torrents, say the government blocks the URL to an illegal torrent website. If you circumvent this blocking, say by accessing the blocked site through third party DNS servers or using an anonymous network like TOR, then this will be an offence under this section. In this way, ‘viewing’ a blocked site indirectly will be punishable.

The maximum possible punishment under these sections of copyright law is upto 3 years of imprisonment and/or a fine of upto Rs 3 lakhs. In addition, a person may be liable under other sections of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and the Indian Penal Code, 1860. The new warning is therefore an attempt to spell out the consequences of piracy, with the hope that knowledge will be a more effective deterrent.

Torrent Penalty

Ineffectiveness of website blocking
While laws are in place, practically speaking it is difficult to enforce the laws against copyright infringers. Imagine having to trace out and arrest every person who ever illegally downloaded pirated content. While there is nothing to prevent a content owner from prosecuting all such persons, the focus is normally on tackling the entity enabling the infringement. This is why the blocking of torrent websites like the Pirate Bay is resorted to. But blocking out each individual website is hardly effective as a measure of battling piracy, since mirrored sites come up almost as fast as the original is taken down. The illegal downloads therefore never actually stop; they just shift to a new website.

A law in the UK proposes a different solution to this problem. Under UK’s Digital Economy Bill, the internet service providers send a notice to users accused of online piracy. After a pre-decided number of notices is reached, measures like bandwidth capping and a temporary suspension of online accounts are to be taken against the user. Repeat serial offenders will have face stricter consequences and can be prosecuted. Similar measures have also been put in place in Australia. This might work better to prevent individual users who are guilty of copyright infringement. However, it may only work against users who are not making any effort to mask their internet usage. For those making that effort, such as through the use of TOR, the ISPs will have a tougher job keeping track of them.

Should piracy be legalised?
The internet has made copyrighted content available easily and for free. People have gotten used to this easy availability and will keep seeking out newer ways of gaining illegal access to such content. Lawmakers can keep coming up with newer ways to prevent piracy, but internet users will find a way around it. Perhaps the solution to piracy is not in trying to ban it, but to legalise it. Content makers should consider making content available free of cost and finding newer ways to monetise it, such as through advertisements. If the focus is shifted to finding an effective alternate way for artists and other content providers to earn, then content can be made available free of cost to everyone.

The author is a lawyer with a specialisation in cyber laws and has co-authored books on the subject.

Published Date: Aug 22, 2016 02:10 pm | Updated Date: Aug 22, 2016 02:10 pm