Parents' guide to illegal file-sharing
Government and industry take steps to help computer owners educate their children on the legalities of internet activities
When children spend hours on the internet, most parents have no idea what they are up to. And by the time a subpoena arrives in the mail because of their childrens' illegal file-sharing activities, it may be too late.
This was what happened to Yeung Chun-choi in February. The single parent of four received a summons from the High Court informing him he had been sued by seven record companies for copyright infringement for file-sharing activities on the internet. However, Mr Yeung is computer illiterate and it was actually his two teenage daughters who were guilty of the activities.
Although Mr Yeung finally settled the case and paid a sum in compensation, it has brought to light the question of the kinds of legal risks parents could face.
But do these companies really have a case against unknowing parents?
They do, according to Leong May-seey, regional director for Asia at the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI).
'This can vary from country to country as the legal situation is different around the world. In Hong Kong, legal action is targeted at the owner of the computer and internet connection,' she said.
In recent years, many record companies in developed countries have resorted to suing file-sharers in an attempt to control the problem.
'Stealing music by illegal file-sharing is not morally different to walking into a music store and shoplifting CDs,' she said.
So to educate the public, IFPI and the government's Intellectual Property Department (IPD) last week launched a parents' guide to music on the internet in Chinese.
The guide, called 'Young People, Music and the Internet', provides parents with a jargon-free explanation of internet jargon such as 'peer-to-peer' (P2P), 'file-sharing' and 'downloading'.
It also alerts them to the dangers posed by computer viruses that are prevalent on many computer networks used to swap music files illegally.
'The Chinese language guide for parents explains what is and is not legal on the internet when it comes to obtaining music,' Ms Leong said. It is available on their website, www.ifpihk.org.
But there are ways for parents to protect themselves: 'Be aware of what your children are up to on the family computer and provide them with advice about what is right and wrong,' she said.
'The free parents' guide explains the jargon so parents can give the right advice,' she said.
She also urged parents to make use of a free program on the website called Digital File Check. It finds and removes any copyright infringing files on a computer and blocks others from being downloaded.
The program can help ensure that the children in the house were conducting safe and legal activities on the internet.
'Digital File Check is an effective parental control technology. It is free and does not send tip-offs to anti-piracy organisations. It is a way to keep yourself and your family safe from future legal action,' she said.
Are there any signs that suing has led to a decrease in illegal file-sharing? Apparently, yes.
According to Ms Leong, while broadband penetration around the world increased by 26 per cent last year, the number of infringing files on the internet fell from 900 million in June last year to 885 million in January this year.
'Research conducted in Europe by independent analysts Jupiter found that three million people have cut back or given up file-sharing, with most citing fear of legal action and worries about the viruses prevalent on illegal P2P networks as a reason for doing so,' Ms Leong said.
She said the same research suggested that most people who had recently obtained broadband were going to legal rather than illegal sources for their music, so the message was getting through.
Akash Sachdeva, a Hong Kong-based intellectual property lawyer at Allen & Overy, said Mr Yeung's case was not straightforward.
'I guess [the record labels] settled because even though [Mr Yeung] owns the internet and computer, he hasn't done anything.
'It's not a straightforward case that the owner of the computer is liable and had authorised the infringement,' he said.
However, do not relax just yet. According to Mr Sachdeva, record companies will single out file-sharers whose information was easily accessible.
'They will pick people where their information can be easily obtained and it is easy to show evidence of infringement. Record companies will then send out 'cease and desist' letters.'
Mr Sachdeva said one way to reduce illegal downloading was for record companies to develop a business plan to harness the massive demand for digital media.
'Only 4 per cent of download sites are legitimate. If record companies get their act together there will be less illegal downloading and uploading.'
Three important steps
1 Talk to your children about copyright, file-sharing and illegal downloading. Ask them to show you what they do when they are on the internet, which sites they are accessing and what files they might be sharing. Explain to them who loses out when songs get distributed on the internet - artists, songwriters or record labels? Mostly importantly, who should pay the bill if the labels decide to sue?
2 Check your computer for any P2P software, make sure the computer is protected against viruses, spyware and has firewall software installed.
3 Explore the legal music on the internet. For a small fee you can download good-quality songs from a legal music retailer. For links to over 200 legal music retailers worldwide, go to www.pro-music.org/musiconline.htm. There is also plenty of free legal music available on the web - from artists who want to promote their latest album or want fans to sample their work. Explore and you will be surprised by the quality and quantity of free legal music available.
The above information was obtained from Childnet International, a non-profit charity that aims to make the internet safe for children. It has an extensive website (www.childnet-int.org) dedicated to educating parents and protecting children's rights on the internet.