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When the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI shut down the web site Megaupload yesterday, there were many responses, from outrage to confusion to applause, and nearly as many questions. One that stood out was simple: If Megaupload provides a service that can be used for legal pursuits, are they legally responsible for the users who use it to illegally share copyrighted material?
Maybe unsurprisingly, there are at least a few different answers to that question.
From the perspective of the Justice Department, which spent two years investigating Megaupload, the key to the company's guilt is in the way people like Harry Dinwiddie use the site. I asked Dinwiddie if he was stealing music. His answer:
"Pretty much. Mmmhmm."
Removing Megaupload from this marketplace won't stop Dinwiddie or others who want to share copyrighted files.
"You can go to RapidShare," he says. "There's many other websites. Megaupload was just the biggest name."
Of course, the technology really can be used for completely legal pursuits. Katie Fishman is one of many who use the site for something other than sharing copyright-protected material.
"There are huge chunks of data that I have uploaded for my own use so that I'll be able to access them whether or not I'm at my computer or someone else's or a work computer, if it's a question of multiple documents that I need to transfer and can't send over email," Fishman says.
Unfortunately, everything she has stored on Megaupload is currently unavailable to her.
Megaupload claims that most of the people using its site are like Fishman, not Dinwiddie. But content-holders like the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) disagree. According to Kevin Suh, who works on content protection for the MPAA, far more copyrighted material — hundreds of millions of dollars worth of movies, music, TV shows, video games and computer programs — is transferred illegally using the same technology.
"Megavideo and Megaupload really are the words copyright infringers on the Internet right now," Suh says. "And given that fact, it's important for us to use U.S. Government resources to address this kind of problem."
The takedown of Megaupload also involved the dramatic arrest, in New Zealand, of four of the company's executives, including its founder, Kim Dotcom. Dotcom, born Kim Schmitz, has insisted that Megaupload was created for legitimate uses, but Jim Burger, a copyright attorney, says that's not enough.
"It's not just what people are doing on your website. It's that you by actions and words are inducing them to violate copyright law," Burger says.
The Justice Department's indictment includes emails sent between Megaupload executives that make it clear that they know they're profiting from copyright theft, and there's a legal precedent for shutting down sites that can be used to trade files legally, if they're mostly used for copyright infringing file-sharing.
Peer-to-peer file-sharing services like Napster, Grokster and LimeWire have all been forced to shut down after battling with copyright holders.
After the shutdown of Megaupload was announced yesterday, the hacker group Anonymous launched an attack on many of the websites of companies that were involved in the indictment, including the Justice Department, the FBI, the MPAA and the Recording Industry Association of America.
"If you think about all the various cloud computing services, they can't monitor everything everybody stores on the site. It's just not really realistic to do that," Burger says.
So while Megaupload may be the latest battlefield on the war over copyright infringement and file-sharing, the war seems to be far from over.