Enforcing copyright online has proven to be quite difficult. More than a decade after Napster brought the subject of digital piracy into the mainstream, content owners are still struggling to protect their rights on the internet. They have finally learned one thing though: suing grandmothers (and dead grandmothers) doesn’t work.

So what are content owners doing? It appears they are turning their attention to a more receptive audience: politicians.

Last week, in response to a request from the U.S. Commerce Department, the RIAA, MPAA and AFTRA admitted what everyone has known for some time: “the role of lawsuits in solving the online theft problem is clearly limited.” They continued, “For instance, bringing clear-cut claims against major commercial infringers is not by itself a solution in the long run. These cases take years to litigate and are an enormous resource drain.

The content owners believe that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which was designed to help protect intellectual property in the digital age, provides service providers with too many loopholes. In turn, their users are able to engage in infringing activity while the service providers feign innocence. According to the content owners, there is plenty of technology available that enables service providers to combat online piracy, but many simply don’t take advantage of it because they’re not required to.

It’s pretty easy to see where this is going: the DMCA needs to be modified and/or new laws need to be passed that would shiftmore of the enforcement burden on third parties, namely service providers. Unfortunately, this is a bad idea. While piracy is a serious issue that needs to be addressed, and intellectual property rights shouldn’t be minimized, major content owners are likely going to push for laws that presume guilt, put speed before accuracy and shift enforcement burdens and costs onto third parties. None of these things will have a positive impact on the internet economy, and will almost certainly do far more harm than good. One need only look at ACTA to see that ‘fighting piracy‘ will eventually be the justification for all sorts of questionable regulation of the internet and technology.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, however, and internet companies do bear some of it. That’s because, in some corners, there has been a ‘wink-wink‘ mentality when it comes to copyright. The DMCA’s Safe Harbor provisions have provided cover to ‘service providers‘ who would rather turn a blind eye to copyright infringement than do something about it, and in many cases, the Safe Harbor provisions ironically encourage such behavior. And to be sure, content owners haven’t been an easy bunch to work with either, to their own detriment, but that hardly justifies some of the ‘see-no-evil, hear-no-evil‘ approaches to copyright infringement.

Unfortunately, the cat is out of the bag, and there’s a good chance that over the next decade, we’ll all realize that a little bit of prevention would have been better than the cure the content lobby is getting ready to have politicians prescribe.

Photo credit: Carolyn Coles via Flickr.