The new Copyright Alert System that went into effect last week is a weak response to the rampant Internet theft of music, films, games and television programs. But it's better than doing nothing to combat the wrongheaded assertion that intellectual property should be free to anyone who can grab it.
Under the new system, the five largest Internet service providers — Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Cablevision, and Time Warner Cable — will search peer-to-peer sharing websites to determine whether copyrighted material is being used without permission. Other, smaller ISPs are expected to join in. When someone illegally sharing a song or movie is found, he will be issued a series of six warnings aimed at stopping him.
The Center for Copyright Infringement, which is coordinating the new system, says service providers won't monitor users' Internet traffic, which should allay fears about an invasion of privacy.
The warnings start with mild email alerts that assume the violator may not know that what he is doing amounts to theft. If subsequent notices are ignored, a provider can slow down the violator's Internet service for 48 hours. There are no repercussions after that, although it's possible information provided by the alert system could be used to file lawsuits against content thieves.
The alert system is aimed at educating, rather than punishing, consumers. But the light approach may prove too lenient to be effective. It may be that the real value of the alert system will be to provide enough information to come up with an even better idea to stop theft.