The trouble started with what should have been a routine file backup. In midsave, the external hard drive Kyle Goodwin was using slipped off his coffee table and onto the floor, rendering the data on it inaccessible.
It wasn't the end of the world, Goodwin reasoned, because he knew the videos he and his team had produced were backed up online since he had exchanged project files with colleagues using a premium cloud locker service. What he didn't realize was that the service had just been shut down by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Goodwin, who operates a local high school sports broadcast site in northeastern Ohio, was one of millions of people who regularly used Megaupload, the controversial file-sharing site that has long been in the crosshairs of the entertainment industry for the role it plays in pirating copyrighted content. The site was seized and shut down in January following a raid on founder Kim Dotcom's New Zealand mansion.
Dotcom is currently awaiting extradition to the United States, where he faces charges related to widespread copyright infringement. In the meantime, Goodwin - and an unknown number of users like him - is stuck in the dark, unable to access his files.
"I brought up the website and it brought me to the main page, but I couldn't do anything else," Goodwin says. "I just freaked out, and I had no idea what to do."
Goodwin got in touch with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who is representing former Megaupload users in a legal effort to have their noninfringing files retrieved.
"This piracy, that has nothing to do with me," Goodwin says. "Everything on there is mine. It's everything we filmed for OhioSportsNet in the last six months."
A Fiasco Without Precedent
It wasn't even 24 hours after the shutdown that reports began to surface of legitimate, nonpirating users being blocked from accessing their files. While Megaupload was undoubtedly used by many for piracy, it was also used as a cloud storage locker for users' personal files. In Goodwin's case, he had backed everything up locally, but was the victim of a poorly timed hard-drive crash.
"My business kind of came to a standstill when this happened," Goodwin says.
For now, his files are sitting on servers owned by Carpathia Hosting, a company from whom Megaupload had rented server space. The data is trapped in a sort of legal limbo as the justice system grapples with how to handle a situation that has few, if any, precedents.
The shutdown of Megaupload may or may not have put a dent in online piracy, but for users like Goodwin, it's having a very tangible effect. Most of the missing videos are archived on his website, but not in a way that makes them particularly easy to download and edit. As a result, he has to turn down paying customers who want him to put together a montage of their performances in past games. For student-athletes, such a reel could help them land a scholarship to get into college. For Goodwin, his inability to offer it means lost revenue.
"It makes me look foolish, and it costs me a lot of money," he says.
For Now, the Wait Continues
A hearing held in Virginia last week didn't come any closer to resolving the matter, as Federal District Judge Liam O'Grady declined to intervene and instead deferred to another court. In the meantime, Carpathia continues to weather the financial cost of hosting data for what used to be one of its most lucrative clients.
The whole affair is a mess, to say the least. It's unknown how long it could take for a judge to make a decision about what to do with the data of innocent users, let alone what the logistics of sifting through every terabyte might look like.
Goodwin says he expects an "all-or-nothing" approach, meaning that the government could either release all of the data, or it could end up being permanently deleted. He would prefer to see it analyzed so the noninfringing content can be identified and saved, but concedes that such an endeavor could be incredibly time-intensive and logistically challenging.
Among the most troubling aspects of this experience for people like Goodwin is that they were not warned. Even though piracy was widespread on Megaupload, users who paid for premium accounts and didn't use the site for illegal purposes had no reason to expect that their data would suddenly disappear. It would be akin to a Dropbox user trying to log into their account, only to find that the domain had been seized by U.S. authorities.
"I came to the conclusion that everything's gone," Goodwin says. "That way, I don't have any false hopes, and I'm not holding on the idea that maybe I'll get it back. If I get it back, it'll be like Christmas morning."