STARTING IN July 2012, Jack Inglis started seeing a series of emails with the same ultimatum: Either he stop pirating copyright-protected material or his internet service would be shut off.
Only Inglis wasn't pirating; his customers were. And Inglis, who owns the Portland café chain Floyd's Coffee Shop, isn't alone.
Small businesses with open WiFi often incur the wrath of copyright enforcers. Locked into contracts with telecoms that make them legally responsible for their customers' pirating—and too small to pull weight with these companies when the enforcers come calling—cafés and others that rely on free WiFi find themselves making a tough choice: police their patrons or lose their internet.
Based on the emails he received from his internet provider, CenturyLink, Inglis finally figured out some coffee-swilling customers at his SE Morrison location had been illegally downloading copies of The Newsroom, True Blood, and Top Chef, among other TV shows, over the shop's WiFi.
CenturyLink had emailed Inglis. So did HBO and NBC Universal, the show's rightful owners, which had definitive digital proof Inglis' IP address was the source of the theft. And CenturyLink had some bad news when Inglis called to sort things out: If he failed to stop his copyright-infringing customers, CenturyLink would switch off his internet service and add his name to a "blacklist" of troublemakers.
Inglis didn't know what to do. (Inglis says Floyd's Old Town location has also received similar warnings, this time from the internet provider Integra Telecom, which has been significantly less draconian, Inglis says.)
"So we asked them," Inglis says with a laugh, "and they suggested we tell every customer not to download [copyright-protected] stuff... that's not only ridiculous, but it's also completely unworkable."
Following the Mercury's inquiry, CenturyLink spokesman Martin Flynn emailed this response:
"CenturyLink respects intellectual-property rights. Illegal downloading and file sharing are violations of our acceptable-use policy. However, given the nature of this issue, we are committed to working with our customer to resolve this problem."
Cafés have long been the unfortunate middlemen in the battle between pirates and big-name copyright holders, but soon they won't be the only ones receiving notices.
Sometime soon, the much-anticipated-and-feared Copyright Alert System (CAS) will launch nationwide. The brainchild of the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, and five big internet providers (CenturyLink isn't among them), the system will alert home internet subscribers when their IP addresses have been used for downloading illegal content.
As part of a kinder, gentler copyright enforcement strategy, the system will also help would-be pirates find online content legally. If users continue to break the law, their internet providers will implement a graduated response. First will be "educational" material—and if the stealing doesn't stop—penalty payments and significantly slower internet connections could follow.
For years telecoms have been understandably reluctant to call their customers "criminals." But as privacy advocates wring their hands over just how intrusive the new system will be—so far, nobody really knows—many are asking if internet providers have finally gotten serious about pirating.
Inglis says he's heard of other coffee shops having run-ins with the copyright police, but whether this represents a new trend or business as usual is an open question.
There's also a persistent internet rumor that claims the alert system will affect businesses, too—and end public WiFi as we know it. This doesn't appear to be the case.
According to statements made by the Center for Copyright Information (CCI), the umbrella group behind the alert system, the system won't apply to business accounts.
CCI didn't respond to the Mercury's request for an interview. But following our inquiry, CCI Executive Director Jill Lesser posted this on the group's website:
"While copyright infringement using public WiFi is no less permissible than over a residential connection, the accounts that will be included in the CAS are not the accounts that are used to provide public WiFi and accusations that the CAS will end public WiFi are false."
This doesn't mean cafés are off the copyright hook.
Service agreements between internet providers and their customers, residential and business, have long banned pirating—and these agreements are already much harsher than the announcement system appears to be. Businesses and regular people periodically receive notices telling them to stop pirating or else. But, says Eric Priest, assistant law professor at University of Oregon and an expert in digital copyright, cafés and other open WiFi providers are different. Their problem is whether to police their patrons or face the consequences.
"[Internet providers] have pretty broad immunization from liability [to copyright infringement]," says Priest. This immunity isn't passed along to their customers, and, Priest says, that's on purpose.
So, to cover his ass, Inglis hired a techie to block known pirating sites and software, and—because downloading large files, illegal or otherwise, requires a lot of bandwidth—he slowed his cafés' connections to a quarter of their original speed.
Since doing this, Inglis says, he hasn't received another email ultimatum. He also told the Mercury he plans on leaving CenturyLink. Inglis says he understands not all businesses can go to this length to avoid copyright woes. His advice to others caught between a pirate and copyright holder? Protect your network and "hope for the best—and that the people who know what they are doing haven't figured a way around all that."
But Inglis and other café owners' biggest problem might not be their technical abilities. It's their size.
According to a technician for a Portland-based hotel chain, who asked to remain anonymous, his firm regularly receives copyright notices about pirating by guests. But because of the chain's size, its internet provider has gone to bat for the hotel, not the copyright holders.
"We get these warnings," he says, "but it's a warning shot and we know they are never going to aim the gun at us."
As for the larger problem of enforcing copyright over open WiFi, he says, "It's like leaving free money on the street and getting mad when people take it."