Is Davenport’s internet piracy strategy a self-defeating one?

Is Davenport’s internet piracy strategy a self-defeating one?So there you are, quietly enjoying some internet porn, when you hear a letter drop on to the mat. It is from ­Davenport Lyons, a media and IP firm, demanding around £500 for the porn. And it has killed the mood.

Davenport has come in for a lot of stick concerning its cease-and-desist programme against file-sharers, which encompasses all types of content, ­including music, videogames and films.

The firm has been working with ­internet service providers (ISPs) and the courts to hunt for internet users who are thought to have downloaded ­copyrighted material illegally. The firm then sends letters demanding £500 compensation to the alleged file-sharers on behalf of the IP-owning clients.
The main problem with this approach is the loss of goodwill towards the brands – both of the law firm and the copyright owners. Videogame maker Atari has pulled out of the scheme because of the potential damage to its brand.

Some of the thousands of letters end up going to innocent people. It is a ­scattergun scheme. For example, the firm sent a letter demanding £500 for an illegal download of hardcore gay porn film Army F*ckers to a bemused elderly couple. The download was registered on their internet address, but the ­abundance of wireless networks means the real perpetrator could be anyone within an 80-metre radius.

One consequence for Davenport is that consumer group Which? has complained to the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) about the firm’s letters.

In a letter sent to the SRA, Which? accused Davenport of “bullying” ­behaviour and claimed the firm had made “incorrect assertions about the nature of copyright infringement”.

Deborah Prince, Which? head of legal affairs, said: “We think the SRA needs to take urgent action against Davenport Lyons.”

But the firm has hit back, saying the letters were legally correct and that the scheme is not bullying. In a statement, the firm says: “We’re confident that
we’ve not breached SRA rules. What we will say is that Which?’s letter to the
SRA contains a number of errors, ­misstatements and assumptions that are simply incorrect. We’re surprised that Which?, a consumer group, should wish to attack so strongly a scheme which is designed to protect copyright, the theft of which costs consumers each year.”

The row highlights a legal dilemma. The internet is a perfect tool for ­copyright theft, whether it be for ­downloading pirated films or music files ripped from CDs. But no one has really come up with a perfect plan of how to put a stop to it.

The only real alternative to a splurge of legal letters is to give ISPs incentives to police their own customers. So far threats of legal action against the ISPs have not produced great results.

The ISPs are reluctant to pursue their customers because of the damage to their own brands and claim they are just the pipes that carry the internet and not the regulators of the internet.

Robert Horsfall, partner at music ­boutique Sound Advice, says: ­“Copyright owners are perfectly entitled to take legal action against file-sharers, but that’s not to say that they should. In practical terms, it’s only possible to pursue a finite number of cases against a background of widespread file-sharing, and this is ­perceived as unfair.

“The music industry can’t act in ­isolation and there’s been considerable pressure exerted on ISPs to do more to prevent file-sharing on their networks. This has been more constructive than taking legal action, but real results may not be achieved until ISPs begin to offer music services themselves.

“In doing so, it will create a commercial rather than a legal imperative for ISPs to act against illegal file-sharers under the terms and conditions, such as fair usage, that they impose on their customers.”

Until the day comes that ISPs join the fight against copyright theft on the ­internet, the mailshots will continue to go out. The real question for Davenport is whether the revenue it makes with the scheme balances out the potential damage to the firm’s image.