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UK High Court forces ISPs to block Popcorn Time, but what is the blocking order worth?

In the United Kingdom, the Hollywood film industry’s legal battle against illegal streaming service Popcorn Time has for now ended in a victory for the film studios. In legal proceedings instituted against the biggest Internet service providers (ISPs) in the United Kingdom, the High Court yesterday ordered five ISPs to block access to Popcorn Time.

The claimants – among them 20th Century Fox, Universal and Warner Bros. – obviously based their claim on large-scale copyright infringement committed using Popcorn Time, also informally known as ‘Netflix for pirates’. The medium allows people to stream films and TV series in high quality very easily, without the copyright owners’ permission.

The High Court also established that by using Popcorn Time, consumers infringe copyright on a massive scale and has now ordered five UK ISPs to block access to nine websites offering downloads of the software with immediate effect. The order is similar to earlier judgments in the United Kingdom forcing ISPs to block access to torrent sites like The Pirate Bay.

An order just for show?

Although the film studios won the case, the Hollywood champagne corks will not be popping just yet. First of all, Popcorn Time will continue to be around, given the decentralised nature of the P2P protocol on which the software runs. Films and TV series are uploaded by the users of the medium, so Popcorn Time merely acts as a go-between. Moreover, new websites making the software available (and hence not subject to the ban) are likely to mushroom and, what’s more, it is relatively easy to circumvent the block. It is therefore by no means certain that the judgment will serve to effectively curb the use of Popcorn Time.

A situation similar to the one in the United Kingdom occurred in the Netherlands in the recent past. Although Dutch anti-piracy foundation BREIN had convinced the court at first instance to order Dutch ISPs to block access to The Pirate Bay, this measure also proved to be inadequate. More than that, even the Court of Appeal ultimately ruled, right at the time when the block was shown to be virtually ineffective, that the measure was contrary to the freedom to conduct a business and had to be dismissed. The Supreme Court has yet to pass an opinion on this reasoning; until that time, the Dutch are anxiously waiting and seeing whether blocking access to certain websites will be permitted at all.

Anyhow, practice has already shown that website blocks are hardly effective, if at all, in the fight against piracy. The UK judgment may be a boost for the film studios then, but it looks like a Pyrrhic victory. Why not creatively deal with the dangers that have materialised and provide a legal alternative that current users of services like Popcorn Time find more interesting? After all, it won’t be the first time for the entertainment industry’s defensive tactics to backfire.

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