Catching online pirates in SA using IP addresses

A recent court ruling in the United States may have a profound impact on the way copyright holders target potential Internet pirates. A district court judge dismissed a lawsuit by a copyright holder, arguing that an IP address is not enough to identify the person who pirated content.

To date most copyright holders made use of IP addresses to identify and take action against people who have pirated and shared copyright material online.

The copyright holder typically records the IP address of the person who downloaded and shared the file, and then force an Internet service provider (ISP) to supply them with the personal details of the account holder.

However, the person who pays for the ISP account is not always the person who downloaded or shared the file. In a family home, for example, the ISP account (and hence IP address) may be in the name of the father, while his son may be pirating content.

To date many online pirates used services to hide their IP address, or prevent copyright holders from logging their IP address, to protect them from legal action.

If an IP address proves to be insufficient to fight online piracy in court, copyright holders may have to resort to other methods to address the issue.

South African legal opinion on piracy and IP addresses

Paul Jacobson
Paul Jacobson

In South Africa many ADSL users have received warning letters regarding copyright infringement based on their IP address.

This raises the question of whether an IP address alone can be used to convict a person for copyright infringement in a local court.

Paul Jacobson, legal expert and founder of Web-Tech-Law, said that he does not believe an IP address alone will ever be enough to convict a person of anything.

“At best it is an indication of who may have used a machine implicated in an allegedly illegal activity,” said Jacobson.

An IP address may not even be enough to obtain a search warrant if a person is suspected of piracy.

Jacobson said that obtaining a search warrant based on an IP address will depend on how specific the IP address is.

“In other words, how reliably can the IP address be associated with the individual/s being investigated? Is the IP address reused by a large number of people or fairly isolated?” he explained.

“Again, it would be an indication of a suspect’s identity. There are other factors that have to be considered before warrants and orders are issued,” said Jacobson.

Nicholas Hall
Nicholas Hall

Nicholas Hall, an associate at Michalsons Attorneys, also said that an IP address will not be enough to convict a person for online piracy.

“Because we don’t generally have a static IP system in South Africa an IP address alone would be insufficient. You’d still need to prove things like who was actually using the computer along with a host of other details,” said Hall.

Hall said that an IP address may be enough to obtain a search warrant and confiscate computers to establish if a person pirated content.

“The IP address along with the relevant account logs from the ISP would be enough to get a warrant and take the investigation further,” said Hall.

More on online piracy in South Africa

Internet piracy criminal, civil penalties in South Africa

First for SA: Internet pirate arrested in Cape Town

Online Piracy: What happens when you get caught

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Catching online pirates in SA using IP addresses