Piracy and prosecution: ringing in Kim Dotcom

25 Jan 2012

Like money for jam, journalists have found their demon figure, their publicity machine, in the form of anti-copyright maestro Kim Dotcom. He is a figure of capacious girth with a string of white collar crimes that would make some blush and others envious. Most just know him as Kim Schmitz, who made copyright violations lucrative and established an online empire that has been the scourge of authorities the world over. (Read: the US copyright system, with its compliant backers.)

The label attached to the German cyber maverick has stuck, largely because of the man’s own self-publicizing exploits. Whether actual or alleged, they have been many. ‘Mega’ is the term that is thrown in with his various titles: MegaPorn, MegaVideo, MegaLive, MegaPix, Megaupload. Like the horsemen of the apocalypse, ‘Kim Dotcom’ and his profligate coevals rode in with effortless and merciless ease, strafing targets for value with unusually expansive bandwith while enabling millions to participate in the scheme. Again, the battle over the ‘freedoms’ of the internet come to the fore: laws established to supposedly protect the integrity of a product, and the insatiable appetite of the broader masses to acquire them.

Last week, the US government, with the help of a string of assisting authorities (Netherlands, UK, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, Philippines) seized the domain names of Megaupload, pressed the police in New Zealand to arrest several of the site’s operators, amongst them Kim Dotcom himself, and freeze some $50 million in assets. Prosecutors, in an indictment lodged in a Virginia federal court, charge that the site has earned more than $175 million since 2005, the majority of derived from the fruits of copyright violations. In addition to Kim Dotcom are five other figures who are apparently part of a ‘Mega Conspiracy’ and have a habit of using unimaginative license plates.

The case is now being heard in New Zealand which will decide on whether Dotcom’s extradition to the US is warranted. The prosecution has opposed bail. The politicians are getting nervous – US copyright guardians are feared, even in these corners. Questions are being asked regarding Dotcom’s residency status. The jittery Winston Peters, leader of the nationalist New Zealand First Party, has already dubbed the affair around the German nation as ‘this immigration scandal’.

The cyberlocker business Schmitz co-founded in 2005 has become so formidable a threat it is deemed greater than the service provided by The Pirate Bay. Megaupload, a Hong Kong based entity, enables millions to access unauthorized copies of TV software, TV shows, films, songs and, of course, good lashings of porn. Those in the television and film business have been steaming away in fury, looking at Megaupload fill its coffers from subscriptions to locker services provided by the company. Cyberlocker services are said to be less awkward than BitTorrent systems, which gives them broader reach and accessibility.

Last year, the adult-entertainment company Perfect 10 mounted an action against Megaupload, beginning the corporate onslaught on the site. A US District Judge in LA rejected Megaupload’s motion to dismiss the suit by Perfect 10 against the company for uploading pirated content to the cyberlockers the company possesses (CNet, Aug 4, 2011).

If the internet is a bastion of untrammeled freedoms, a medium of expression, one wonders how laws of private property could be relevant. But the Internet and history’s most effective scribe, Karl Marx are not necessarily good bedfellows here, at least when it comes to the copyright regulators who seek to encase the world in a cocoon of corporate ‘protections’. When the individuals concerned work for the vanguard of asinine products such as the Motion Picture Association of America, representing Hollywood’s six largest film companies, piracy does not merely become a privilege, it becomes a duty. Muck, after all, should be dispersed.

For the US authorities keen to prosecute the matter, the pursuit of happiness is a circumscribed and carefully policed mission. Especially if that pursuit is taking place in distant New Zealand. The locals have certainly found Kim Dotcom a rich food to stomach, be it his $30 million residence, extensive car collection or his heavily conspicuous consumption.

Much of the dislike shown against Kim Dotcom and his unappealing company is a matter of taste and realization. This is personal, and the US authorities have made no secret of that fact. Why not sue the company name instead? Dotcom comes across as the figure who needs to be dealt with by the forces of order, unsavory, insatiable, a cavorter. He is the fat man on the outside of every thin woman wanting and biding his time to get in. He is a past convict of insider trading.

The Dotcom case is a battle in miniature about the cyber world and what users can or can’t do. Much of what he and his team have done is legitimate. As James Grimmelmann of New York Law School observes, ‘If proven at trial, there’s easily enough in the indictment to prove criminal copyright infringement many times over. But much of what the indictment details are legitimate business strategies many website use to increase their traffic and revenues: offering premium subscriptions, running ads, rewarding active users’ (Ars Technica, Jan 19). But more to the point, and much to the terror of the copyright gatekeepers, it is a battle over an attempt to fence in the world of providers and users and bring order to the refuse of the pleasure jungle.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. 

Image: e_monk / flickr

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