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Guns, body armor, and raids: The piracy fight gets dangerous

Police raid the home of MegaUpload's Kim DotCom wielding automatic weapons. Anonymous publishes the Social Security number of a sports promoter who disagrees with them. Are both sides hurting their causes by turning to increasingly tougher tactics?

Kim DotCom, who was arrested following a police raid on his house January 19, prepares to take testify in a bail hearing. Bail was denied. Credit: 1News)

Semi-automatic shotguns, body armor, and accusations of police brutality and acts of terrorism are common in stories about Mexico's drug wars or the fighting in Afghanistan.

So what are those terms doing in technology stories about copyright and online file sharing? A recent arrest of MegaUpload's founder by 70 armed police officers as well as cyber attacks on media executives and government officials by Anonymous indicates that the gloves have come off in the copyright conflict.

Against this backdrop, BTJunkie, one of the top BitTorrent index sites, has decided to shut down. BTJunkie posted a note on its front door notifying users that it had reached "the end of the line" and that the site had "voluntarily" shut down. "We've been fighting for years for your right to communicate but it's time to move on," wrote the site's operators, who some copyright owners have said were in violation of copyright law.

TorrentFreak, which broke the news about BTJunkie, reported that it spoke to the site's founder, who said that while the service was not under any legal obligation to close down, the current environment in file sharing played a role in the decision.

Last week, a Swedish court upheld a lower court's decision to force the founders of The Pirate Bay, one of the world's most popular BitTorrent indexes, to serve out prison sentences for copyright violations. In New Zealand, in a sign that authorities in some countries have begun taking a much heavier-handed approach to copyright enforcement, police raided the home of Kim DotCom, MegaUpload's founder.

Over 70 officers, some wearing body armor and brandishing automatic weapons, stormed the home where DotCom, his pregnant wife, and small children live. DotCom's bodyguard has told the New Zealand Herald that police "kicked in unlocked doors and rousted nannies from bed" while carrying M-4 automatic rifles. DotCom said in court that police beat and kicked him though he never tried to resist. Police say he refused a demand to show them his hands.

DotCom was arrested and his possessions seized at the request of the United States, which has accused him of pirating intellectual property, money laundering, and racketeering and want him brought here for trial. Officials from the U.S. Department of Justice say DotCom's cyberlocker business was a thinly veiled piracy operation that cost film studios, music labels, video game companies, and software makers a half billion dollars in damages, making it the largest criminal copyright case ever brought in this country.

That may be but the way police arrested DotCom appears to be unprecedented for a copyright case. DotCom, born Kim Schmitz, has been convicted in Germany of crimes related to computer hacking and insider trading. He was involved in illegal street racing and has been photographed with firearms. When he was arrested, a semi-automatic shotgun was found near him. (There is no indication that he attempted to use the firearm against police.)

In an interview with the Herald, an official from the police department that arrested DotCom said the department is satisfied the raid was conducted in a proper manner. What officials haven't provided, however, is a reason why they packed so much firepower to arrest someone--as far as we can tell--who has never been accused of a violent crime.

Ira Rothken, DotCom's U.S. lawyer, says that the U.S. was behind a raid after making the same kind of allegations that Viacom made against YouTube in a civil suit. Not only did YouTube prevail in a federal district court against Viacom, but nobody busted down the doors of YouTube founders Chad Hurley or Steven Chen.

But the finger pointing doesn't stop there. Executives at the largest film studios, major record companies, and even some sports leagues, say those sympathetic to copyright violators are trying to terrorize them.

The hacktivist group Anonymous has been accused of posting the personal information--including Social Security numbers, mobile phone numbers, home addresses, and even the names of children--belonging to managers at big media companies. The group allegedly did this to Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a promoter of mixed-martial arts fights, after White criticized Anonymous for hacking UFC's Web site.

He called Anonymous members "cowards" and "terrorists."

This is so much different from how the two sides have gone at each other in the past. The disagreement over Web copyright has typically played out in court, with both sides largely satisfied to use lawyers and harsh language against one another. The music industry chose what was once considered an extreme option by filing copyright lawsuits against individual file sharers.

The move not only made the Recording Industry Association of America unpopular with music fans but the group was criticized even within its own ranks and by other copyright owners. Critics dismissed the strategy and argued that no good could come from declaring war on your customer. The tactic never became much of a deterrent and the RIAA abruptly dropped the suits in December 2008.

Maybe there's a lesson in there for both sides.

The recent attempt by copyright owners to get antipiracy legislation passed was defeated not by trying to intimidate people with computer intrusions but by rallying support with the Internet and forcing lawmakers to back off. And copyright owners have seen recent success with digital sales by making music and video easily accessible online for a reasonable fee. The courts have also sided with copyright owners in big file-sharing suits, including the one against the once top music-sharing service LimeWire.

Few of their successes have come as a result of beating down doors or suing grandmothers. That's just not smart public relations.

Both sides should have confidence in their arguments. If they are true and just they should convince on their merits.