The US Department of Justice's recent seizure of three website domains has heralded the latest development in the digital piracy saga. Applanet.net, appbucket.net and snappzmarket.com are all alleged to have distributed Android apps for free and in breach of copyright.
The three sites were by no means insubstantial; the FBI announced that they had downloaded 'thousands of copies' of the apps as part of the investigation. Applanet alone still boasts 88,000 fans on Facebook and 21,000 followers on Twitter. Each website now displays a FBI banner, warning first time copyright offenders that they can face up to five years in jail and a $250,000 fine.
The seizure involved international law enforcement authorities, including those in France and Holland, as well as nine search warrants across six different US states. A statement released by the DOJ announced that 'cracking down on piracy of copyrighted works - including popular apps – is a top priority of the Criminal Division. Software apps have become an increasingly essential part of our nation's economy and creative culture, and the Criminal Division is committed to working with our law enforcement partners to protect the creators of these apps and other forms of intellectual property from those who seek to steal it.'
Although the DOJ has said that this is the first time website domains involving smart phone apps have been seized, recent months have seen law enforcement authorities take action against file sharing sites. Last month the operator of Surfthechannel, Anton Vickerman, was jailed for four years for two counts of 'conspiracy to defraud' by a court in Gateshead. The site, which linked to pirated films and other content, had estimated annual profits of £300,000. The Ukrainian based bittorrent site Demonoid was taken down to a backlash from the Anonymous hacking community. Before its shutdown, the site had been ranked within the top 300 most visited sites in US.
In January US authorities seized file storage site Megaupload with prosecutors alleging that its pirated movies and other content has cost copyright holders $500m. The site's founder, Kim Dotcom, faces a jail sentence of up to 20 years if extradited from New Zealand and convicted in the US. UK ISPs have also acted to block file sharing site Pirate Bay following a High Court ruling in February. The site is said to have generated up to $3m in advertising last October whilst its co-founder, Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, has just been deported from Cambodia in order to serve a one year jail sentence in Sweden.
Such positive action against pirates is welcomed by copyright owners but has also been described as 'a massive game of whack-amole'. Countless alternative sites exist and it remains very easy to recreate the sites at another web address. The cost and effort involved in policing piracy by these methods means enforcing the block across the internet is almost impossible. Google recently revealed that it receives more than a million requests a month from copyright owners seeking to remove their content from its search results.
Last week Google announced that over half a billion devices are now using its Android operating system. However, application developers remain wary of Android, with sites like Applanet demonstrating that its business method does nothing to halt piracy. Unlike Apple's iTunes, apps for Android can be downloaded and installed without using its centrally controlled marketplace, Google Play.
In July developer Madfinger Games released its game 'Dead Trigger' onto Android for $0.99. Within a month the company's Facebook page stated 'even for one buck, the piracy rate is soooo giant, that we finally decided to provide Dead Trigger for free.' Madfinger are not alone. The developers of Football Manager, Sports Interactive, reported in April that the game's Android piracy rate was 9:1, or one sale for every nine pirate downloads. Korean developer Com2uS has cited a 98% piracy rate on its Android games whilst US developer, Appy Entertainment, has reported a piracy rate of 70:1 for its FaceFighter Gold game on Android against a 3:1 rate on iOS.
Crucially, despite the huge growth in Android uptake, neither Sports Interactive nor Appy Entertainment have released a game on the system since these experiences. To developers pirated copies don't just represent lost sales, they attribute to increased server, support and security costs. However, consumers remain attracted to free downloads and Android's self-sign certification as rights holder, which enables easy misrepresentation of ownership. Those downloading pirated apps should beware of possible malware and the risk of falling foul of law enforcement agencies.
Sports Interactive have called on Google to introduce an online store 'that essentially acts like an app-only iTunes' in order to regain control of the marketplace, but this is unlikely to suit Android's open access model. Google have announced that app encryption, whereby paid apps receive a device specific key before installation, will be introduced as part of its Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) platform to be released later this year. Google and the developers will both hope that the encryption and continued legal action stave off the pirates and allow more apps to be uploaded onto the otherwise impressive Android system.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.