This week, Village Roadshow co-CEO Graham Burke announced the company will start suing Australians who infringe on its copyright. This means anyone who has streamed or downloaded a movie via an illegal pirate site is potentially in its cross hairs.
But when will litigation begin? Who will be targeted? And how much money will you need to pay? We spoke directly to Burke to get some answers.
It's safe to say that the salad days of "free" online content are over. After years of taking piracy lying down, rights holders have declared war on Australian copyright infringers - and they appear to be getting results.
In December last year, Foxtel and Village Roadshow successfully lobbied the government to instruct ISPs to block five popular torrent sites from its customers. Since then, over 60 additional websites have been added to the blacklist, along with 250 related domain names. According to Burke, these sites account for approximately 95 per cent of criminal trade.
However, as we have explained in the past, these anti-piracy measures are laughably easy to circumvent, with most ISPs implementing a simple DNS block. Consequently, Village Roadshow is moving to sue copyright infringers on an individual basis.
Expect to be sued in 2017
Graham Burke - who is an old hand at battling copyright infringement - plans to start pursuing pirates for damages this year. The first infringement notices could be sent out as early as November.
"People who infringe [copyrighted movies] are people who steal - it's theft and it's not a victimless crime," Burke said to Lifehacker. "There needs to be a price to pay. What we plan to do [is] sue people that are stealing our movies. So if someone steals Red Dog and Mad Max Fury Road, we will sue them for the two viewings of those movies, plus some damages."
Burke confirmed to Lifehacker that the penalty being sought will be in the region of $100 to $200 per infringement. This amount will include "damages" incurred by Village Roadshow.
"We're talking the equivalent of a parking fine, but it establishes that [piracy] is theft and is the wrong thing to do."
Burke said the current plan is to mail infringement notices to suspected pirates to inform them of the movie titles they are suspected of stealing. The recipient would then have the opportunity to pay up or plead extenuating circumstances. After assessing the response, Village Roadshow will then decide whether to take action.
Burke wanted to assure our readers that Village Roadshow would withdraw legal action in circumstances where the alleged infringer is suffering from financial hardship or ill health. (This appears to be a spot of preemptive damage control against the inevitable blacklash that occurs when corporations step on society's downtrodden.)
"For people who are in dire circumstances, we will withdraw the action if [they] undertake not to steal in the future," Burke said. "I think most people are pretty honest - you only have to look at the old-fashioned newspaper box where you took the newspaper and put the money in the slot. So we'll be relying on people's inherent honesty."
The case for the courts
Before any litigation can take place, Village Roadshow will need to compel Australian ISPs to hand over the real names and addresses of suspected infringers. Burke said that Village Roadshow would not be engaging in “speculative invoicing”. This was the sticking point that derailed the Dallas Buyers Club court case in 2016, with rights holders refusing to agree on a specified amount for damages. By putting a fixed price on damages, Village Roadshow expects to receive minimal opposition from the presiding judge.
"The information we have at this stage is that we will be able to get the information we need through the courts, and ISPs will be compelled to play ball."
This is significant. By avoiding the mistakes of Dallas Buyers Club LLC (DBC), Village Roadshow is far less likely to have its case thrown out of court. If given the green light to pursue pirates, Burke said it was "probable" that other rights holders will follow Village Roadshow's lead. (You can bet your bottom dollar that Foxtel will be coming after Game Of Thrones pirates, for example.)
Of course, there is still the issue of VPN use, which essentially masks your IP address from outside snoopers. How does Village Roadshow intend to sue pirates when the most prolific offenders are untraceable? Burke admitted this was going to be a problem.
"It appears right now that there is no solution to people who use VPNs," Burke admitted. "But I think technology will develop and there will be ways to detect these users eventually. It's worth noting that people who use VPNs do have to pay for them and 40 per cent of [piracy sites] do have malware, so it's a dangerous place to be in."
Australian pirates have just been put on notice. The chairman for Creative Content Australia - a consortium of rights holders that counts Foxtel, Village Roadshow and the Australian Screen Association (ASA) among its members - has issued a stern warning to anyone who continues to access pirated content. In short, you can expect to be sued this year.