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VCAP scheme almost finalised, will see “educational” warnings sent to illegal downloaders

Major UK ISPs and the entertainment industry are on the verge of agreeing a deal over piracy which would eschew punitive measures, and instead seek to warn copyright infringers over their behaviour by sending them "alerts".

The BBC has the word on the Voluntary Copyright Alert Programme (VCAP) agreement, which comes after literally years of bickering between service providers and the BPI and MPA (the industry bodies for music and film).

Under the terms of the agreement, Sky, TalkTalk, Virgin Media and BT will post off warnings to customers who are believed to have engaged in illegal downloading – missives which will be educational in nature, rather than threatening in any respect. The BPI and MPA were pushing for these letters to underline the possible legal action which the recipients could face, but this idea was squashed by ISPs in favour of a more light-touch approach. Furthermore, they wanted access to a database of known online copyright infringers, but this measure has been denied by service providers, as well.

Indeed, a lawyer specialising in all matters Internet, Steve Kuncewicz, told Auntie Beeb that the agreement had been "watered down beyond all recognition".

Originally, measures such as throttling the broadband connections of copyright infringers, or indeed threatening to cut off their Internet altogether, were what the music and movie industries were pushing for – so this seems to be a major victory for the ISPs.

However, the suggestion is that the copyright policemen are playing something of a longer-term game here, as the Beeb's sources state that the agreement contains a provision whereby if the scheme doesn't have a noticeable effect on piracy levels, they will call for the "rapid implementation" of the full anti-piracy measures within the Digital Economy Act. You know, the nasty stuff mentioned above such as removing people's net access, which was never put into play.

So the weaker action here in the short-term, which is more likely to be ineffective, could give the BPI and MPA exactly what they want further down the road.

And let's face it – hardcore pirates are unlikely to be bothered by a polite letter which is nothing more than an educational slap on the wrist.

Other UK ISPs will be brought in on the agreement in the future, too, and copyright holders are stumping up money to pay for the new system – £750,000 will be winging its way to ISPs to cover the expense of setting up the scheme (or 75 per cent of the total cost, if that is greater).