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MediaDefender is wake-up call for entertainment sector

Tactics used on both sides of the piracy fight continue to get nastier, but scorched-earth mindset may be self-defeating.

The irony of the MediaDefender case is that while one segment of the entertainment industry huddles with FBI agents over the theft of e-mails, another segment has acknowledged purchasing stolen e-mails.

In court papers made public last month, the Motion Picture Association of America disclosed that it paid a hacker $15,000 for private e-mails belonging to TorrentSpy, a BitTorrent tracking site. The MPAA, which said it was unaware that the e-mails were stolen, has accused TorrentSpy of encouraging copyright violations.

Then came startling revelations about the tactics employed by MediaDefender, an antipiracy company that tries to thwart illegal file sharing on behalf of movie studios and record labels. This week, someone calling themselves MediaDefender-Defenders grabbed more than 6,000 of MediaDefender's e-mails and circulated them on the Web, a story first reported by the blog TorrentFreak.

"My guess is that neither side of this issue is bothered about their activities since both see their activities as the righteous ones."
--Hilary Rosen, former head of the Recording Industry Association of America

Revealed in those e-mails was information about MediaDefender's extensive use of controversial tactics--creating honey pots and launching what are essentially denial-of-service attacks--that are more often associated with cybercriminals.

The entire mess shows that at a time when the music and film industries continue to lose ground to piracy, the guardians of copyright appear more willing than ever to get their hands dirty.

This mindset is self-defeating, according to John Palfrey, director of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. He said that by adopting a bare-fisted approach to piracy, the entertainment industry is driven from the moral high ground and undermines its own attempts to convince the public to behave ethically with regard to copyright.

"How can they go to people with the idea of responsibility if their hands are unclean?" Palfrey asks. "It has the feeling of an argument imploding in on itself. I think (the MediaDefender case) is proof that these kinds of tactics aren't good long-term answers to the file-sharing problem and neither are they good in the short term."

To be sure, there are plenty of questions about conduct on both sides of the piracy argument.

MediaDefender-Defender admitted stealing the company's e-mails and exposing numbers and personal information belong to non employees. They posted to the Web a recording of what appears to be a phone call between a MediaDefender executive and representatives of the New York state attorney general's office about a joint investigation into child pornography.

I know the idea behind publishing the e-mails was to embarrass MediaDefender, to expose it as incompetent and hypocritical. Okay, the e-mails accomplished that. But was it necessary to undermine a criminal investigation or involve those who have nothing to do with the piracy wars? Is this acceptable collateral damage?

Still, I'm not naive enough to think anyone on either side is going to let up soon. That's not how crusades work.

"My guess is that neither side of this issue is bothered about their activities since both see their activities as the righteous ones," said Hilary Rosen, who was chairman of the Recording Industry Association of America for 17 years before retiring in 2003, in an e-mail. "The Defender-Defenders think they have caught a big one, but copyright owners aren't embarrassed by these leaks. Why should they be? They are protecting their content."

Rosen did save a parting remark to take a slight dig at those whose job it is to protect copyright holders: "Perhaps Media Defender needs to spend more time defending itself."