When the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI shut down the web site Megaupload yesterday, there were many responses, from outrage to confusion to applause, and nearly as many questions. One that stood out was simple: If Megaupload provides a service that can be used for legal pursuits, are they legally responsible for the users who use it to illegally share copyrighted material?
Maybe unsurprisingly, there are at least a few different answers to that question.
From the perspective of the Justice Department, which spent two years investigating Megaupload, the key to the company's guilt is in the way people like Harry Dinwiddie use the site. I asked Dinwiddie if he was stealing music. His answer:
"Pretty much. Mmmhmm."
Removing Megaupload from this marketplace won't stop Dinwiddie or others who want to share copyrighted files.
"You can go to RapidShare," he says. "There's many other websites. Megaupload was just the biggest name."
Of course, the technology really can be used for completely legal pursuits. Katie Fishman is one of many who use the site for something other than sharing copyright-protected material.
"There are huge chunks of data that I have uploaded for my own use so that I'll be able to access them whether or not I'm at my computer or someone else's or a work computer, if it's a question of multiple documents that I need to transfer and can't send over email," Fishman says.
Unfortunately, everything she has stored on Megaupload is currently unavailable to her.
Megaupload claims that most of the people using its site are like Fishman, not Dinwiddie. But content-holders like the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) disagree. According to Kevin Suh, who works on content protection for the MPAA, far more copyrighted material — hundreds of millions of dollars worth of movies, music, TV shows, video games and computer programs — is transferred illegally using the same technology.
"Megavideo and Megaupload really are the words copyright infringers on the Internet right now," Suh says. "And given that fact, it's important for us to use U.S. Government resources to address this kind of problem."
The takedown of Megaupload also involved the dramatic arrest, in New Zealand, of four of the company's executives, including its founder, Kim Dotcom. Dotcom, born Kim Schmitz, has insisted that Megaupload was created for legitimate uses, but Jim Burger, a copyright attorney, says that's not enough.
"It's not just what people are doing on your website. It's that you by actions and words are inducing them to violate copyright law," Burger says.
The Justice Department's indictment includes emails sent between Megaupload executives that make it clear that they know they're profiting from copyright theft, and there's a legal precedent for shutting down sites that can be used to trade files legally, if they're mostly used for copyright infringing file-sharing.
Peer-to-peer file-sharing services like Napster, Grokster and LimeWire have all been forced to shut down after battling with copyright holders.
After the shutdown of Megaupload was announced yesterday, the hacker group Anonymous launched an attack on many of the websites of companies that were involved in the indictment, including the Justice Department, the FBI, the MPAA and the Recording Industry Association of America.
"If you think about all the various cloud computing services, they can't monitor everything everybody stores on the site. It's just not really realistic to do that," Burger says.
So while Megaupload may be the latest battlefield on the war over copyright infringement and file-sharing, the war seems to be far from over.
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One of the biggest file sharing sites on the Internet, MegaUpload, has been shutdown. The Justice Department says the move is part of one of the largest criminal copyright cases it's ever brought.
As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, the case raises important questions for anyone who stores files of any kind online.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: The reason the Justice Department spent two years investigating MegaUpload is because of people like Harry Dinwidde. You're stealing music.
HARRY DINWIDDIE: Pretty much.
SYDELL: Dinwidde used to use MegaUpload to pirate music all the time but not anymore. Yesterday, the Justice Department took down MegaUpload. Four of its executives were arrested in New Zealand. U.S. officials claim that hundreds of millions of dollars of copyrighted material - movies, music, TV shows, video games, computer programs - were being pirated using the same technology.
Officials were tipped off to the problem by the Motion Picture Association of America, says Kevin Suh, who works on content protection for the association.
KEVIN SUH: MegaVideo and MegaUpload really are the worst copyright infringers on the Internet. And given that fact, it's important for us to use U.S. government resources to address this kind of problem.
SYDELL: And if Hollywood had been looking to cast a guy in the role of Internet pirate, no actor could play the role better than the founder of MegaUpload, Kim Dotcom.
KIM SCHMITZ, AKA KIM DOTCOM: Awesome, man. Eighteen holes, man.
SYDELL: That is Dotcom himself from one of many online videos. In this one, he's driving a Mercedes right across the green way of a golf course. In other pictures, he's with girls in bikinis, standing by vats of cold champagne bottles or driving a yacht. Dotcom was previously known as Kim Schmitz and Kim Tim Jim Vestor. And in his native Germany, he was found guilty of insider trading and computer hacking.
The Justice Department isn't giving interviews about the case, but in its five-count indictment, it says Dotcom and his executives are guilty of criminal copyright infringement, conspiracy to commit money laundering and racketeering. They face up to 20 years in prison.
Jim Burger, a copyright attorney, says even if people were breaking the law on the site, that's not enough to convict these guys.
JIM BURGER: It's not just what people are doing on your website. It's that you, by actions and words, are inducing them to violate copyright law.
SYDELL: In the indictment, the Justice Department appears to have good evidence. For example, there are emails between company executives where they make it clear that they know they are profiting from copyright theft.
But Burger also says the case raises some concerns, as we move into an era where more and more people are storing movies, photos, music and more on the Internet. Or, as they say, in the Cloud. Like the kinds of services that Apple and Google have.
BURGER: If you think about, you know, all the various Cloud computing services they can't monitor everything everybody stores on the site. It's just not really realistic to do that.
SYDELL: MegaUpload's technology also lets people store files in the Cloud. MegaUpload claims that most users are like Katie Fishman, who used the site for legitimate reasons.
KATIE FISHMAN: There are huge chunks of data that I have uploaded for my own use, so that I'll be able to access them whether or not I'm at my computer or someone else's, or a work computer, if it's a question of multiple documents that I need to transfer and can't send over email.
SYDELL: Unfortunately, all the stuff she had stored on MegaUpload is now inaccessible to her because the Justice Department took down it down. MegaUpload user Dinwidde says it's easy to just go someplace else to pirate.
DINWIDDIE: You can go to RapidShare. You can go to File Sharing, there's many other websites. MegaUpload was just the biggest name.
SYDELL: Indeed, many people may recall a long list of other pirate sites, beginning with Napster and onto Grokster, and so forth. MegaUpload may be just the last model.
Laura Sydell, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.