Was Megavideo Illegal?

The US Department of Justice contends that Megavideo enabled 180 million subscribers to illegally download copyrighted content through their file sharing service. The main charge is theft. However, does the DOJ even have a case? Is what the members of Megavideo and other cyber lockers do a crime? Legal experts are coming out to say that this case may be harder to prove than it first appeared.

Some may recall the Anti-Piracy advertisement that the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) put out there. The ad plays at the beginning of many DVD’s and lectures that, “You wouldn’t steal a car. You wouldn’t steal a handbag. You wouldn’t steal a mobile phone. You wouldn’t steal a DVD. Downloading pirated films is stealing. Stealing is against the law. Piracy: It’s a crime.”

However, many feel a lot differently about downloading content from the Internet than they do about committing grand theft auto. This is because theft is legally described as a zero-sum game. By stealing a car, one is taking that car from someone else. By downloading “California Gurls” from a cyber locker site like Megavideo , it is difficult to prove that something was taken from Katy Perry. Just because the MegaUpload and Megavideo subscriber downloaded the tune, who is to say that the same subscriber would have purchased it otherwise? Perhaps they would have simply gone without the catchy song on their iPod.

This is the crux of the argument and the reason why the case may not be the slam-dunk that it was originally thought to have been. It is definitely easier to argue that taking the creative content of another person is morally and ethically wrong. If one is gifted, talented or simply has a stroke of genius, and they create something like a song or film, then they do deserve to be rewarded for such endeavors.

However, legally the argument is a bit more problematic. Perhaps the problem is in the DOJ going after the file sharing sites. Is it really their fault if their users do something wrong? Are the users even doing anything wrong? Or, if the Megavideo of the world are to blame for this fiasco, then should the charge really be theft, as we legally understand it today? Maybe charging them with something else like unauthorized use, trespassing or giving the legal argument of “theft” a facelift for the Information Age would help matters.

This is exactly the direction that Congress is trying to go. Early in 2012, they proposed two new acts: Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). PIPA re-defines infringement to include distribution of illegal copies, counterfeit goods, or anti-digital rights management technology. SOPA would allow the US Department of Justice along with the copyright holders to get court orders against websites located outside of the US regarding copyright infringement.

The government rejected both acts, but advocates contend that they will bring them back in another form. Over 7,000 websites, including Wikipedia and Google, protested the anti-piracy legislation on January 18, 2012 by “blacking out” their sites for a day. Many opponents of the bill feared that it provided the government too much power with censorship and that it could ultimately hinder free speech. While not as many people publically contend with the intentions of SOPA & PIPA, there were too many loopholes that could lead to infringement on one’s free speech with their passage.

As it stands today, Kim DotCom is in custody and awaiting trial. Lawyers are arguing whether the DOJ even has a case. In the meantime, other file sharing sites are thriving. and a teenager just added “California Gurls” to their playlist for free.

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