The copyright wars, part MMXI: Wiley vs. BitTorrent

November 1, 2011 by · 2 Comments 

If you’re casting around for a definition of irony, you could do worse than point to a lawsuit against the peer-to-peer file sharing company BitTorrent instigated by a publisher whose backlist includes an instructional book called BitTorrent for Dummies. Although it seems counterintuitive, the publisher of that volume, John Wiley & Sons, has filed suit in New York claiming that 27 individuals “have engaged in the illegal copying and distribution” of titles in the company’s popular Dummies series of books, using the BitTorrent software.

The complaint, a copy of which was obtained by the website TorrentFreak, alleges that between October 12 and October 19 of this year, twenty-seven individuals illegally downloaded copies of Wiley titles including Day Trading for Dummies, Calculus Essentials for Dummies, Dreamweaver CS5 All-In-One for Dummies, and WordPress for Dummies. While the identities of the twenty-seven individuals are currently unknown (they are identified in the complaint as John Doe 1–27), their IP Addresses are listed, and they all reside in New York State. “That tidbit is quite relevant,” writes a poster named “etdragon” on the website Myce, “considering recent mass lawsuits have been thrown out of other courts due to the fact that all the defendants did not reside in the state in which the claim was filed.”

Myce also points out that the Wiley suit marks a precedent: previous lawsuits claiming copyright infringement against BitTorrent have involved producers of movies, music, and video games. This is the first time a major multinational publisher has filed a mass suit against users of the file-sharing site.

In the complaint, Wiley alleges that the defendants “knowingly and purposefully infringed, and induced others to infringe, Wiley’s copyrighted works.” It goes on to state:

Although Wiley cannot determine at this time the precise amount of revenue that it has lost as a result of the peer-to-peer file sharing of its copyrighted works through BitTorrent software, the amount of that lost revenue is enormous. For example, BitTorrent users on a single site, demonoid.me, have downloaded one of the works that is the subject of this suit, Photoshop CS5 All-In-One FOR DUMMIES, more than 74,000 times since June 6, 2010.

The complaint also suggests that Wiley stands to suffer damage to its corporate reputation as a result of inferior versions of its books proliferating among file-sharing online users:

The damage to Wiley includes harm to its goodwill and reputation in the marketplace for which money cannot compensate. Wiley is particularly concerned that its trademarks are used in connection with unauthorized electronic products, which could contain malicious viruses.

The suit requests an injunction preventing the defendants from further disseminating Wiley’s titles or using Wiley’s name or associated trademarks. In addition to court costs, the suit also asks for “treble damages and/or treble defendants’ profits from their willful infringement, couterfeiting, and/or false designation of origin of Wiley’s trademarks,” as well as punitive damages.

The Wiley suit once again pits the holders of copyright and those who profit off the creation of copyrighted works against the denizens of the Internet who believe that information should be free and that copyright infringement is inevitable in a digital world. This debate is of particular salience here in Canada, where the Conservative government is currently considering Bill C-11, the Copyright Modernization Act, which would, in at least one instance, side with the copyright holders by criminalizing activity that circumvents digital locks placed on copyrighted materials.

If the history of the music and movie industries is anything to go by, the piracy proponents may indeed have the upper hand in this argument. And Wiley’s claims for damages may be futile: the vast majority of cases involving other media have resulted in out-of-court settlements.

However, Wiley is to be commended for taking a stand on the principle of intellectual property ownership, which helps ensure fair compensation for creators of the very content digital pirates seem so anxious to consume and share among one another online. What the piracy advocates tend to ignore is the fact that should these content creators decide it is no longer worth their while to create the content, there will be nothing left to pirate.