Will fine for illegal game distribution result in P2P fair play?

Topware Interactive, the developers of the computer game Dream Pinball 3D, are celebrating today after winning damages from a British woman who distributed their game via a P2P file-sharing network.

Topware took legal action against Isabella Barwinska from London, winning over £16,000 in damages and costs in the process. According to Topware’s legal representatives, thousands of other Britons are suspected of sharing the game and this could be “the first of many” such cases.

The software company began to investigate the illegal internet distribution of its game in early 2007, and forced 18 British ISPs to reveal information about suspected pirates. It then sent 500 letters, asking for a settlement payment of approximately £300 to prevent further legal action.

Brawinska was one of the individuals who chose to contest the legal action.

Whether the sizable fine will act as a deterrent to other internet pirates remains to be seen, but it certainly signals a more hardline approach to the problem than many other media and entertainment companies have demonstrated in the past.

As a younger man I wrote some computer games myself, so I have some sympathy with the developers. In my case I distributed the games as shareware, so I wouldn’t have had a problem with people distributing them via peer-to-peer file-sharing networks (if such a thing had existed at the time).

Investing many thousands of man-hours into the development of a computer game only to see your investment go down the plughole thanks to selfish pirates must be heartbreaking.

So, what now? Might home users who face possible legal action for stealing goods via the net – which they would never dream of shoplifting in a high street store – be tempted to use the camouflage of the workplace to do their downloading in future?

If so, firms need to ensure that they have tight control over the software running on their employees’ computers.  Otherwise, they risk staff using file-sharing software irresponsibly on the company network, and facing potentially painful legal consequences.

But I’m feeling rather pessimistic about this one. I think most home users who download copyrighted music, movies and games from the net using file-sharing networks don’t think that anyone is really being hurt, and can’t equate it to stealing a CD from a record store. Because the crime is taking place in their back bedroom via the net, they feel as though there isn’t a real victim, and don’t understand that they might be breaking the law.

This isn’t the end of P2P file-sharing pirates by a long way – but it is a sign that more entertainment companies are beginning to bite back.