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alex beam

Pirates at bay?

Even if the tide has turned in the crusade against Internet upload sites, content-protection watchdogs aren’t letting their guard down

I have been following the opera bouffe raid on Kim Dotcom’s rambling New Zealand mansion, which landed our blimpish German friend (birth name: Kim Schmitz) in a Kiwi jail. The raid’s purpose was to seize materials relating to the now-closed Megaupload piracy website, which Dotcom apparently ran out of Hong Kong, at an enormous profit to himself.

Then it dawned on me. Wait a minute - that’s my site.

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Not exactly; I haven’t been there in years. I watched a few episodes of the Showtime TV show “Weeds’’ back in the day, got bored, and that was that. But I have plenty of friends who spent lots of hours on Megaupload, and many of them are now having trouble finding “free,’’ i.e., pirated, TV and movies. My go-to guy on piracy can get what he needs, but even he admits that he’ll miss Megaupload: “They were the most reliable because they ignored takedown notices.’’

The Megaupload bust, engineered by American G-men, had a ripple effect. Shortly afterward, at least two Internet upload sites changed their MOs. “If you see the Megaupload brass being led away in handcuffs, you’d be concerned, and rethink how you do business,’’ says David Sohn, general counsel of the Washington-based Center for Democracy & Technology. “Holy cow - you’re saying we could go to jail?’’

Separately, it looks as if the Recording Industry Association of America, the most hated initials in suburbia, has scored some successes in its crusade against music pirates. In the past, the RIAA pursued elaborate show trials against end users, one of the more notorious being the Joel Tenenbaum circus in federal court here. The $675,000 judgment against the Boston University graduate student is being re-litigated, and his lawyers have appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

The RIAA still sends out scary letters - e.g., “If you are an Internet subscriber (user), you have received this letter because your Internet account was used to illegally copy and/or distribute copyrighted music over the Internet through a peer to peer application’’ - but it has had a greater impact suing websites rather than people. In 2010 it helped close down LimeWire, a big-time music downloading site. There are other ways to steal music, but people are lazy. There is evidence that LimeWire’s closing has prompted more use of legit, commercial music sites, such as iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify.

My own feelings about content piracy are convoluted and hypocritical. Back in the day, I certainly wouldn’t object if a complaisant IT guy slipped me an unlicensed copy of Microsoft Word. It was and is overpriced. I know, I just paid for a copy. I have plenty of music that found its way into my computer via the black Internets, and as for TV - what can I say? “Weeds’’ certainly wasn’t worth paying for.

Of course, I’d be pretty ticked off if someone stole a book I wrote, or a copyrighted magazine article. I don’t live in Malibu. I need the money.

It seems as if the content-protection gang has turned the tide in the piracy battle. But they are not breaking out the champagne. The RIAA hasn’t unilaterally disarmed, and the business it represents “is half the size we were 10 years ago, in terms of dollars and jobs,’’ according to spokeswoman Cara Duckworth. Sohn notes that content providers have suffered significant setbacks, too. Case in point: the merciless beatdown applied to the Hollywood-and-recording-industry-supported SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) bills this year. “I wouldn’t say they’ve got it all figured out,’’ he says.

The last refuge of Internet piracy is Sweden, home to the Pirate Bay website. Sweden has become the downloaders’ Djibouti, with its own Pirate Party, part of the Greens European Free Alliance in the European Parliament. But even Sweden is under siege. This month Sweden’s Supreme Court upheld the conviction of several Pirate Bay founders, who will probably go to jail, according to the TorrentFreak website.

Just last week, Sweden’s second-largest downloading site closed down, in a blaze of anti-establishment rhetoric: “Maybe we can one day see an end to the fascist tendencies that comfortable businessmen in the film industry and corrupt politicians have turned to something common in recent years.’’

More likely we’re going to see the day when all digital content is securely locked down, and cheapskates like me will have to pay up.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.
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