Piracy Letters May Be a Scam: UK Agency Warns

This week some interesting piracy related news has been bouncing around the net. Firstly, the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) has offered an official suggestion about how British citizens should proceed if they are sent a ‘speculative invoicing’ letter.

Speculative invoicing is the act of sending out letters to suspected pirates in order to extract some amount of payment. The letters are usually written in a contentiously persuasive tone. With the threat of further action (including a possible court appearance) used as bait to encourage the accused to pay up.

The technique became well known in recent years due to the movie Dallas Buyers Club, whose maker (Voltage Pictures) hired a law firm and sent out speculative letters to recover lost revenue in a number of countries. In Australia, the legal firm (Dallas Buyers Club LLC) eventually dropped its lawsuit against Internet Service Provider iiNet. Due to the judge’s decision that Voltage Pictures should only be allowed to recuperate the actual cost of renting the movie.

Before that, the firm had been shaking people down for a whopping $250 each. It is that monstrous sum that many critics of speculative invoicing have issues with: It is seen as unfair that (the aggressive tone of) the letters attempts to get such large amounts from alleged pirates.

Now the IPO is officially warning people that if they happen to receive a strongly worded letter, they should not necessarily worry. Why? Speculative invoicing often works on the principle that people will pay up due to a fear of prosecution. Despite the fact that the firm does not necessarily intend to follow up on the letter in any concrete way.

In a document titled ‘guidance on letters alleging online copyright infringement’, the IPO explains the following,

You may have received a letter if the copyright owner believes someone has used your internet connection to download copyright protected material, such as a film. If the material was downloaded without their permission, for example from a file-sharing website, rights holders may seek compensation for the financial loss they have suffered.

Companies such as Goldeneye, TCYK LLC and Mircom have taken action to get compensation in recent years. It’s important to understand that the copyright owner can only take action against the person who actually committed the infringement. This may not be you.’

The gist of the message appears to be that with the element of doubt comes room to maneuver. That means that the consumer still has a reasonable chance of denying wrongdoing should they receive one of the letters. Of course, because companies like Goldeneye have to go through ISPs to figure out what IP addresses may have visited the file sharing sites in question: Using a VPN service to obscure your IP address – and encrypt your online activities – is a sound way of escaping these repercussions from the outset.

The IPO also warns that due to the method of gaining access to data about who (might have) pirated the copyrighted material (going through the ISP). It is possible for these firms to get false hits. ISPs can only provide firms ‘with details of the internet account holder, who may not be the actual infringer,’ reads the document before explaining how to proceed:

‘Don’t ignore the letter, even if you believe that you or anyone with access to your internet connection hasn’t downloaded the copyright protected material. You should respond.’

Also highly interesting: The IPO warns of recent scams in which fake speculative invoicing letters were sent out in an attempt to bully people into parting with hard earned cash,

‘If you didn’t know anything about the alleged copyright infringement check the letter is genuine. There are scams operating where letters are sent to try and gain compensation from you when you might not have to pay.’

Is Piracy wrong?

Of course, parents and landlords are in a strong position when it comes to legitimately denying wrongdoing. Although the fact that 38% of young people in the EU believe there is nothing wrong with pirating copyrighted material: May mean that parents need to accept the fact that their child could have pirated the material in question.

This is the finding of a survey just published by the EU Intellectual Property Office, in which a cross section 15 to 24 year olds from all 28 member states were questioned to discover their opinion. The good news for copyright holders, is that despite a common belief among just under 40% of young people in the EU that piracy is not inherently ‘wrong’: only 5% of those young people actually admit to sourcing media from file sharing websites such as the Pirate Bay.


This could well be due to the emergence of fairly priced media streaming services such as Netflix, which give consumers an easy way to view media online that wasn’t available in the past. With the advent of streaming services consumers are given an easy, cost effective method of video consumption that makes piracy less glamorous. An effect of modernization that experts had been suggesting would be effective for years, and that is now known as the ‘Netflix effect’.

Another outcome of the Netflix effect, is an improvement in the quality of media that is available (for a reasonable cost). Pay-per-view media catalogues are always improving, and the ever increasing profits of those firms are allowing them to produce high quality original material. This equates to an ever improving product at a price that remains relatively steadfast. Good news for consumers.

A final tidbit of piracy related news is this week’s revelation that GCHQ (the UK’s version of the NSA) helped to stop the latest Harry Potter book from leaking to the Internet. This news comes courtesy of Nigel Newton from Bloomsbury Publishing who has commented that ‘GCHQ rang me up and said, ‘We’ve detected an early copy of this book on the Internet’’. In the end, however, (luckily for Bloomsbury) the leaked copy turned out to be a fake.

Obvious perhaps, but this news is further evidence of the cooperation that governments have with industry. And can be used as an important criticism against overreaching surveillance legislation such as the UK’s proposed Snoopers Charter. After all, snooping on citizens for national security and spying on them to stop piracy are wildly different reasons – and should be part of the discourse about why surveillance is an unreasonable intrusion.

If, for instance, not officially admitting large scale surveillance meant that governments were also unable to actively help stop piracy (on behalf of the media industries). Then it can be understood that Snowden’s revelations may actually have had a negative effect. Making surveillance official – rather than secret – also having the effect of legitimizing the act of spying on citizens to see if they are pirates.

Ray Walsh I am a freelance journalist and blogger from England. I am highly interested in politics and in particular the subject of IR and I am an advocate for freedom of speech, equality and personal privacy. On a more personal level I like to stay active, love snowboarding, swimming and cycling, enjoy seafood and love to listen to trap music.

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