Putting online piracy in dry dock

After months of negotiations, movie studios, record labels and five top U.S. Internet service providers have come up with a framework for combating online piracy. Under the agreement announced Thursday, the ISPs will send warnings to customers whose broadband accounts had been used to transmit or receive copyrighted works without permission. Anyone who ignores repeated warnings will face a penalty, such as a slower Internet connection. It’s not as draconian as the entertainment industry had sought, and it won’t address underground sites that stream bootlegged movies and music. But it’s a fair compromise that should reduce illegal downloading.

Entertainment companies and ISPs have long battled over what, if anything, ISPs are obligated to do about the explosion of piracy on their networks. The studios and record labels persuaded governments in France, England and New Zealand to require ISPs to send warnings to suspected online pirates and, if the infringements continue, hobble or cut off their access to the Net. But U.S. Internet providers resisted imposing stiff penalties, and rightly so — such efforts conflate accusations with proof, and they may punish broadband account holders for infringements committed by others unbeknown to them.

The agreement lays out a sensible way for copyright owners and ISPs to team up. Studios and labels will be responsible for detecting infringements, which they’ll do by monitoring file-sharing networks. Internet providers will be responsible for alerting their customers to the alleged infringements on their accounts and helping them respond to the problem. Only after providing a series of warnings will an ISP be required to take a “mitigation measure” that stops well short of cutting off the customer’s Internet access. Along the way, those who receive warnings will be able to contest them to an independent arbitrator.

Although a number of major ISPs, including AT&T, Verizon and Comcast, are already passing along warning notices to customers, the new initiative is more comprehensive (hundreds of independent labels and studios are participating), methodical and far-reaching. It won’t convert every illegal downloader into a paying customer, but it’s a start. And it has the right focus, which is to educate broadband users about what’s happening on their accounts, what constitutes copyright infringement and where to find legitimate sources of movies and music online. ISPs that have been sending out warning notices say that they substantially reduce piracy. It’s worth stepping up and broadening that effort to see just how much of the problem it can solve.