'Shocked' grandmother on hook for illegal mutant game download
Canadians getting caught in 'dragnet cash grab' after government changes rules on copyright infringement
Post-nuclear war, mutant-killing video games are not Christine McMillan's thing.
But the 86-year-old from Ontario has been warned she could have to pay up to $5,000 for illegally downloading a game she'd never heard of.
She is one of likely tens of thousands of Canadians who have received notices to pay up, whether they are guilty or not.
"I found it quite shocking … I'm 86 years old, no one has access to my computer but me, why would I download a war game?" McMillan told Go Public.
In May, she received two emails forwarded by her internet provider.
They were from a private company called Canadian Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement (CANIPRE) claiming she had illegally downloaded Metro 2033, a first-person shooter game where nuclear war survivors have to kill mutants.
McMillan's IP address, the string of numbers that identifies each computer communicating over a network, was used to download the game. McMillan has an adult grandson, but he doesn't have access to the computer.
At first, she thought it was a scam.
"They didn't tell me how much I owed, they only told me that if I didn't comply, I would be liable for a fine of up to $5,000 and I could pay immediately by entering my credit card number."
McMillan called Cogeco, her internet service provider, and discovered the emails were perfectly legal under the federal government's Notice and Notice regulations introduced last year under the Copyright Modernization Act.
The law requires internet providers to forward copyright infringement notices to customers suspected of illegally downloading content like video games and movies.
Customers are identified only through their IP address. The service provider does not disclose any personal information to the copyright enforcers.
The goal is to give copyright holders a quick and easy way to notify users of alleged copyright infringement taking place at their internet address.
The result has been a flood of notices to suspected offenders from anti-piracy companies asking them to pay a settlement fee.
Copyright holders, such as video game developers and film studios, are hiring third-party companies like CANIPRE to collect settlement money for alleged illegal downloads.
"It seems to be a very foolish piece of legislation," McMillan said.
"That somebody can threaten you over the internet … that to me is intimidation and I can't believe the government would support such action."
Company says it's 'helping clients'
The owner of CANIPRE told Go Public he gets 400 calls and emails from people on a busy day and "most of them" settle.
"Ultimately, we are helping our clients get their educational message out about anti-piracy and theft of content and how it harms them and their rightful marketplace," Barry Logan said.
When asked about the wording that McMillan found threatening, Logan said his company ran the language by lawyers and it's legal.
He says his company has collected about $500,000 for its clients since the Notice and Notice regime started almost two years ago.
Go Public showed Christine McMillan the video game Metro 2033 for the first time. Watch her reaction:
Logan won't say how many files were settled, for how much, or what percentage his company earns.
None of the big internet service providers (Shaw, Rogers, Bell and Telus) are willing to say how many notices are being forwarded to their customers.
A smaller Canadian-based provider, TekSavvy, reported earlier this year it sends out about 5,000 notices a day and has fewer than 300,000 subscribers.
'Dragnet cash grab'
Network security analyst and technology expert Wil Knoll calls it a "dragnet cash grab."
"It's preying on people that don't necessarily understand the system or the technology that surrounds it," he said, "and they're willing to pay out of court because they're scared."
Knoll says because McMillan lives in an apartment, someone could have accessed her unsecured wireless connection, then downloaded the game using her IP address.
He says even secured connections can be hacked.
"It's very hard then to correlate, or nearly impossible, to correlate from that IP address to any individual that's inside the house, or to prove it forensically," he said.
"Especially if these infractions are happening months and months and months ago."
Calls for reform
Critics say the law needs to be revamped so Canadians understand their rights.
Intellectual property lawyer David Fewer says "consumers aren't used to getting these kinds of demands in any other context."
"It can be demands for thousands of dollars, it can be threats that, you know, you're gonna be taken to court, these are all things that are genuinely frightening."
Fewer, who is the director of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, says the legislation should include a form letter that doesn't threaten legal action or demand cash and lists specific penalty amounts.
"If you do it by sending enough scary letters and making enough demands," Fewer said, "and if enough people are panicked or it's worth it to them to regain their sanity and their peace of mind, then it becomes a profitable venture for the parties making those demands."
But Fewer warns that rarely do these companies "accept a settlement offer that's close to their actual damages. What they're looking for is the big payout, it's the big payout that sustains the business model."
What's tricky, he says, is determining legitimate penalties, since no cases involving the Notice and Notice regime have been settled in court yet.
Fewer says typically damages awarded by the courts in piracy cases range from the cost of the legal purchase of the content to several times that amount, not the $5,000 maximum.
McMillan says she's going to ignore the notices and hope the problem will go away, especially since the alternative of taking her to court would be an expensive endeavour for both sides.
Review set for 2017
Navdeep Bains, minister of innovation, science and economic development, declined Go Public's interview request.
In an email to CBC News, the department says, "Receiving a notice does not necessarily mean that you have in fact infringed copyright or that you will be sued for copyright infringement.
The Notice and Notice regime does not impose any obligations on a subscriber who receives a notice, and it does not require the subscriber to contact the copyright owner or the intermediary. There is no legal obligation to pay any settlement offered by a copyright owner."
It says since the new system kicked in, department officials have been working with copyright owners and internet service providers to make sure it's working and to educate Canadians on how it works.
The next review of Canada's Copyright Act is scheduled for 2017.
Submit your story ideas
Go Public is an investigative news segment on CBC-TV, radio and the web.
We tell your stories and hold the powers that be accountable.
We want to hear from people across the country with stories they want to make public.
Submit your story ideas at Go Public.
Follow @CBCGoPublic on Twitter.
With files by Jenn Blair