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Effort afoot in court to sue Canadians for illegal downloads

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A woman uses her computer keyboard to type while surfing the internet in North Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, December, 19, 2012. Digital dissenters known as hacktivists have developed a track record for disruption and attracting attention and are now considered one of the three main groups of attackers online, says security software company Websense. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

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A woman uses her computer keyboard to type while surfing the internet in North Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, December, 19, 2012. Digital dissenters known as hacktivists have developed a track record for disruption and attracting attention and are now considered one of the three main groups of attackers online, says security software company Websense. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

MONTREAL - Massive lawsuits targeting people who illegally download copyrighted content are common in the U.S., where people have been stuck with hefty fines and out-of-court settlements.

Now there's an attempt to bring that to Canada.

At the center of the effort is Canipre, the only anti-piracy enforcement firm that provides forensic services to copyright-holders in Canada.

The Montreal-based firm has been monitoring Canadian users' downloading of pirated content for several months. It has now gathered more than one million different evidence files, according to its managing director Barry Logan.

One of its clients is now before Federal Court in Toronto, requesting customer information for over 1,000 IP addresses — a user's unique Internet signature — collected by Canipre.

That client is the American studio Voltage Pictures, maker of hundreds of films including the Academy Award-winning "Hurt Locker."

On the other side of the case is Teksavvy, an Ontario-based Internet provider. The IP addresses flagged by Canipre link back to its users.

The case is set to resume next month.

If the court orders Teksavvy to hand over customer info, it could be the beginning of a new chapter in the anti-piracy battle in Canada.

"We have a long list of clients waiting to go to court," said Canipre's Logan, who estimates that about 100 different companies are paying close attention to the case.

These lawsuits have been common in the U.S. Between 200,000 and 250,000 people have been sued in the last two years, according to one Internet civil-liberties group.

"They send off threatening letters telling them, 'If you don't pay up we're going to name you in this lawsuit and you could be on the hook for up to $150,000 in damages,'" said Corynne McSherry, intellectual property director of that group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Canadians don't risk such severe damages, because of a bill passed last year that modified the federal Copyright Act.

Bill C-11 imposed a limit of $5,000 on damages awarded for non-commercial copyright infringement, which applies to the average consumer who downloads films.

"The reason Parliament did that (is) they didn't want the courts to be used in this way," said David Fewer, director of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic.

The advocacy group is an intervenor in the Toronto case.

"Copyright is supposed to be a framework legislation. It's not supposed to be used for building a compensation model." He says the phenomenon of file-sharing suits is relatively new in Canada.

He said there has only been a single file-sharing lawsuit in Canada, launched by the music industry. The case, BMG Canada Inc. vs. John Doe, was launched in 2004, and it failed.

Fewer said no similar attempts have been made — until now.

"I'm a little bit surprised to see this (new) litigation popping up in Canada. We typically don't have a culture in Canada for this kind of use of courts," Fewer said.

For now, Canipre is the only Canadian firm providing this type of service. And it's proud of the work it does.

"We understand the culture of piracy," Logan said, adding that he has been involved in numerous IP-related litigation cases across Canada.

"We're bringing that model up here as a means to change social attitudes toward downloading," said the Canipre executive. "Many people know it is illegal but they continue to do it."

The company advertises its ability to conduct "aggressive takedown campaigns" for clients.

It monitors websites where pirated content is known to be available, and it searches for its clients' content. When it finds violations, Canipre asks the hosting website to remove the content — a process known as a takedown request.

"By aggressive, what we're saying is, 'We don't do one or two takedown (requests), we do 1,000-2,000 at a time,'" said Logan, who lives in Ontario."We've managed to put a business process in place with a lot of the top-tier platforms that provide pirated content."

But his company services don't just include suing people. He says there's an educational message, too.

"Our collective goal is not to sue everybody... but to change the sense of entitlement that people have, regarding Internet-based theft of property."

"File Saturation" is one example of an educational message.

The firm uploads a harmless file to sharing websites which closely resembles the content users are seeking. There is one key difference: This particular file is completely useless.

The goal of that effort? Make it harder and more time-consuming to download illegally.

Logan expects Federal Court to order the Internet provider, Teksavvy, to hand over customer information.

Regardless of the outcome of the case, Logan will keep fighting against piracy.

"Litigation is not the only tool that will change piracy — it's simply a tool."

Logan wants piracy to become a taboo, much like drinking-and-driving is now.

"That's (not) the attitude here in Canada: It's a pervasive sense of entitlement," he said. "(Illegally) downloading content should also be socially unacceptable."

Bit Torrent is a tool for sharing large amounts of data on the internet.

There were more than 370,000 Bit Torrent transactions over a month — a transaction being each time a user opens a session to download a film — according to statistics gathered by Canipre for its clients.

Many file transfers using Bit Torrent are perfectly legal. But the peer-to-peer protocol is a particularly popular means of duplicating copyrighted material.

Those statistics only include Canipre's clients, so the actual Canadian number is far higher.

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