TorrentSpy, the popular BitTorrent search engine, has voluntarily shut down to protect the privacy of its users in light of its ongoing legal battle with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Visitors to the torrentspy.com website are now greeted with a message decrying the state of American privacy and copyright law. Proponents of the BitTorrent movement argue that torrent files do not themselves store copyrighted data; they liken their search engines, such as TorrentSpy, to other sites that index data, e.g. Google. The MPAA, on the other hand, believes that torrent search engines contribute to and encourage copyright infringement. They have filed lawsuits and issued tactical cease and desist letters to the internet service providers hosting the torrent files, as well as end users.
TorrentSpy was the most popular torrent website in 2006 according to the torrent news blog TorrentFreak. A federal judge ordered TorrentSpy to log all user data in May 2007 and ordered TorrentSpy to hand those logs over the MPAA. In response, TorrentSpy voluntarily decided to block access to users in the United States. The MPAA was not appeased and sought sanctions, arguing that TorrentSpy willfully disregarded the court's order. TorrentSpy ultimately shut down to protect the privacy of its users, but in May 2008 a federal judge ordered the search engine to pay $110 million to the MPAA for contributory copyright infringement and vicarious liability. Visitors to the torrentspy.com website now see, in part, the following message:
The legal climate in the USA for copyright, privacy of search requests, and links to torrent files in search results is simply too hostile. We spent the last two years, and hundreds of thousands of dollars, defending the rights of our users and ourselves.
If you are a torrent search engine owner faced with allegations of contributory copyright infringement or vicarious liability for the allegedly infringing actions of your users, it is extremely important that you receive updated information about the status of the law from an expert attorney in this area. Federal copyright law, while statutory in nature, is constantly changing with the case law decisions of the various federal circuits. If you are an end user who has received a cease and desist notice from the MPAA or the RIAA, contact an attorney that is familiar with torrents, the TCP/IP protocol, network privacy, and copyright infringement. You should also be aware that torrent trackers are not always private or secure, so it is possible to obtain your IP address from the tracker swarm. Even with distributed hash tables, where each peer becomes a tracker, using torrents to infringe on the copyright rights of others is risky and expensive business.
If you are a content provider that believes your content is being illegally traded on torrent networks, contact a competent attorney with Digital Millenium Copyright Act experience. Although § 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects information service providers from liability for the torts of their users, it does not protect them from contributory infringement or vicarious liability for the knowing copyright infringement of their users. It may not be enough to simply use the DMCA takedown provisions, and there are many other options that can be utilized under the current copyright laws.