Owner of a small Louisiana ISP says he can't afford to be "HBO's free" copyright cop. Big media should compensate ISPs for tracking down suspected file sharers.
Greg SandovalFormer Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Scroggin, who sells Internet access to between 10,000 and 12,000 customers in Louisiana, heard the news on Friday that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has opted out of suing individuals for pirating music. Instead, the group representing the four largest music labels is forging partnerships with Internet service providers and asking them to crack down on suspected file sharers.
According to Scroggin, if RIAA representatives ask the help of his ISP, they had better bring their checkbook--and leave the legal threats at home. (CNET News obtained a copy of the RIAA's new notice to ISPs here). Scroggin said that he receives several notices each month with requests that he remove suspected file sharers from his network. Each time, he gets such a notice from an entertainment company, he sends the same reply.
"I ask for their billing address," Scroggin said. "Usually, I never hear back."
Scroggin has provided some of the e-mail he's received from copyright owners and included in them is an example of his typical response.
Scroggin's case underscores a potential obstacle for the RIAA's plan to enlist the help of ISPs. Small companies like his are innocent bystanders in the music industry's war on copyright infringement. Nonetheless, they are asked to help enforce copyright law free of charge. Many of them can't afford it, he said. Significant resources must be devoted to chasing down suspected file sharers and there's a real cost to that. After talking to Scroggin, it sounds as if the entertainment sector might also have taken a heavy-handed approach to dealing with ISPs in the past and there might be some bad blood built up.
"They have the right to protect their songs or music or pictures," Scroggin said. "But they don't have the right to tell me I have to be the one protecting it. I don't want anyone doing anything illegal on my network, but we don't work for free."
Reached late Sunday night, an RIAA spokesman declined to comment.
Scroggin wants to be reasonable. He tells me he doesn't want to come across as a "hard ass." He just wants someone in big media to understand his position as the operator of a small business.
Incorporated in 1995, Bayou Internet and Communications, based in Monroe, La., typically sells Internet access to small businesses, residences, and municipal services. His customers include parish court houses, homeowners, district attorneys, and rural hospitals. The company is probably similar to lots of small ISPs around the country that operate on tight budgets and must compete against much larger players, such as Comcast or AT&T.
Scroggin is no radical. He respects the law and said he has a long history of cooperating with authorities to protect people from harm.
"If it was life threatening, I'm the first to jump," he said. "We've been contacted by police over Denial of Service and bot attacks. We'll have Secret Service and FBI conversations. We help if police are on perv watch."
But protecting against copyright violations just doesn't have the same urgency, not enough that that ISPs should be asked to work without compensation, Scroggin said. Here are the realities of being "HBO's free police," he said.
First, when a media company demands he kick a customer off the network, there is very little in the way of proof offered that the person in question has committed a crime, according to Scroggin. Yet, entertainment companies want Scroggin to simply wave goodbye to a customer who might have signed up for a three-year plan. At $40 per month, that customer is potentially worth $1,440 to Scroggin over the life of the plan. That, says the ISP owner, is unreasonable.
Next, it's expensive and time consuming to ask highly paid technicians to chase down IP logs and customer IDs, Scroggin said, noting that it's especially difficult nowadays because it's extremely easy to spoof IP addresses.
And then there are the letters Scroggin receives from Hollywood that demand he act or else.
"I'm not doing anything to damage their business," Scroggin said. "But somehow this 99-cent song is my fault."
Scroggin warns that the film and music industries must try a new tack if they want cooperation from ISPs. They can start by helping to cover some of the costs for helping to enforce copyright.
"There's got to be a better way than HBO sending me threatening e-mail," he said. "What I'm saying is, let's sit at the table and come up with a way that works for everyone, including the customers."