Researcher Stephen J. Wang published “DMCA Safe Harbors for Virtual Private Server Providers Hosting BitTorrent Clients” in the Duke Law & Technology Review in 2014. According to Wang, peer-to-peer file sharing has been standard for pirates for well over ten years, but a newer development has been to use a “seedbox.” This is basically a VPS that you can rent to download/upload (also known as seeding) files via BitTorrent. BitTorrent has largely escaped the scope of lawsuits because it can and is used for both infringing and legally sound file sharing. Since pursuing BitTorrent itself is nearly impossible, it’s the seedbox operators who might be facing more legal action.
There’s a precedent based in the MGM Studios vs. Grokster case, UMG Recordings vs. Shelter Capital Partners, and even Viacom Inc. vs. YouTube. Will the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) protect VPS providers who have customers using BitTorrent from getting slapped with a copyright infringement lawsuit? It’s likely that VPS providers will be able to get safeguarded from the safe harbor provisions of the DMCA, assuming they comply entirely with the Act. However, that’s only for classic VPS providers—those who specialize in seedboxing might not have the same protection.
Just a Little “Bit” of Lawbreaking
Wang points out that in 2011, Netflix made up 22.2 percent of all downloaded traffic around North America. BitTorrent gobbled up 21.6 percent. It’s popular because it doesn’t have the same requirements as a centralized distribution option. It costs a lot of money to manage a server that could handle every single user downloading huge files, and seedboxes are an obvious answer. BitTorrent lets peers download parts of files from a bunch of people all at once, which drastically lightens the load on a server. This means you don’t need a central server.
VPS providers have picked up on the need for seedboxes, and some of them only offer seedboxing functions. They’re a niche VPS provider, but is what they’re doing contributing to pirating files? The only real answer is “they could be” and “could” can be all it takes for them to be held liable. If a host is hosting content that’s infringing, how responsible are they? VPS providers might be marketing towards BitTorrent clients, but since BitTorrent can and does help with legal downloads, too, VPS seedbox providers aren’t saying they specialize in pirating—but by the nature of seedboxing they’re suggesting that copyright infringement is par for the course.
Bits and Pieces
Technically, a BitTorrent user who downloads/uploads incredible amounts of infringement property might be sued via secondary liability theories, but you’d have to be a real record breaker for that to happen. Plus, a lot of peers use BitTorrent on remote computers, since you’re “rewarded” if your computer is a generous uploader (i.e. you get priority downloading from like users). Of course, BitTorrent is faster if a computer is connected to the internet at a faster speed, making remote locations ideal. You also get more anonymity—a great perk for some BitTorrent users.
Overall, seedbox specialists don’t seem to aim for DMCA compliancy while traditional VPS providers do. It’s still too early to tell if seedbox hosts will become widely targeted, but it wouldn’t be surprising.