Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Internet Copyright Wars: Do We Really Need Any More Laws?

In case you have been living in a cave, or just busy trying to make a buck in this economy - like me - let me cue you in on some Internet developments that everyone needs to be aware of. This isn't just going to affect those of us whose livelihood is integrally connected with I/P production and distribution.

Let me sum up a few of the latest developments, as I understand them. These are legislative and treaty developments, and the piracy issues that allegedly prompt them and make them necessary, all of which may gravely impact intellectual property rights for all of us:

1) SOPA and PIPA. These potentially very destructive bills would have allowed a broad range of takedown retaliations to those complaining of copyright infringement. So broad, that many entertainment companies (who would theoretically benefit from additional copyright policing) themselves worried that they wouldn't be able to pass muster and boycotted the bills by blacking out their websites or otherwise making statements against them. Fight for the Future, a non-profit defender of internet freedom, proclaimed victory on their site, with respect to the January 18th online protest (phone calls flooding into Washington, website blackouts including Wordpress and Wikipedia) shifted the opinion in DC, such that the bills were shelved for the time being, effective January 20th.

SOPA, aka the Stop Online Piracy Act, is the House of Representative's offering and PIPA, the so-called Protect Internet Privacy Act was courtesy of the Senate.

Both had provisions that would permit the blocking of websites that were accused of copyright infringement, and allow payments to be blocked to these sites as well, while granting immunity to the payment processors or ad networks that cut off sites with "reasonable" belief of infringement.

The non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation points out the potential for abuse and bogus claims of infringement could seriously impact anyone with third party content, including social media sites like Facebook. All that would be required is for an IP rights holder to notify a payment processor like Visa/MC that there is an infringement, and that site's payment capabilities could be suspended. No actual legal action (i.e. court order) would be required for payments to be blocked. A series of claims and counter-claims are the only recourse.

In their own words: "In essence, Hollywood is tired of those pesky laws that help protect innovation, economic growth, and creativity rather than outmoded business models. So they are trying to rewrite the rules, regulate the Internet, and damn the consequences for the rest of us." Under current law, a copyright holder can request that infringing material be removed, but can't shut down an entire website (as SOPA/PIPA might have allowed).

In his story, "The Real Reasons Google Killed SOPA / PIPA," Forbes contributor Scott Cleland names Google as the chief architect and organizer of anti-SOPA/PIPA efforts on the internet. Their motivation is to protect their own interests which institutionalize internet piracy and - among other sins - minimize offenses by others by failing to penalize infringing sites with lower rankings, while lowering rankings for sites which compete with Google.

2) The MegaUpload takedown. What a crazy story. Hard to know what to make of that one. Like other famous takedown stories (Napster comes to mind), this is a case where file sharing led to what is alleged to be $500 million dollars in stolen revenue from pirated films, music and other I/P. Federal prosecutors cited the fact that the site was set up to specifically reward users who uploaded pirated content, and that requests from copyright holders to take down pirated material were ignored.

Whether the timing was geared to the SOPA and PIPA bill online boycotts, the day before, is hard to say.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation criticized the arrest of MegaUpload owner Kim Dotcom (that's his legally changed name) saying the arrests set a "a terrifying precedent. If the United States can seize a Dutch citizen in New Zealand over a copyright claim, what is next?" Hmm, not breaking the law, maybe? I guess our Feds used the fact that the company had servers in Virginia as its legal foot in the door to get indictments and enlist NZ authorities to make arrests.

The USA Today article which speculates that this takedown might somehow threaten internet commerce - as file sharing is a vital part of life on the net - is a bit overwrought, I think. The fact that MegaUpload was ignoring copyright complaints sets them apart from operations like YouTube, which takes them seriously and supplies plenty of warnings about using other peoples' I/P. Also, Kim Dotcom has an admitted background as a hacker and has prior convictions for manipulating stock prices and insider trading. All in all, not a choirboy.

3) Kim Dotcom starts to look almost heroic compared to what's on the horizon in the form of ACTA, the very veiled Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement which is on its way to a vote in the EU Parliament.

Forbes contributor and blogger E.D. Kain describes this international treaty as having been largely been contrived behind closed doors (starting with the Bush administration, and now signed by Obama as of last year). It allegedly contains many of the same broad takedown provisions as SOPA and PIPA. Those bills were so punitive that even content owners protested it to Congress to block its passage, as mentioned above. Many European countries have signed ACTA already, although some nations strongly oppose it.

A petition to the European Parliament, opposing ACTA, has been initiated by AVAAZ, an international internet democracy advocate. When on considers the importance of the internet in movements like the Egypt protests, one begins to realize that this goes far beyond just I/P and copyright protection. In that situation, social media like Twitter and Facebook provided vital communication links that propelled the democratic protests in that country. Oppressive regimes would certainly have an interest in controlling or limiting that access.

Laws exist to protect I/P infringement, as voiced by many observers of the MegaUpload takedown. The rule of law prevailed. We don't necessarily need more law or regulation as much as innovation, as mentioned in the PCWorld coverage which included this quote from Techdirt, which points out that the apparent battle between the advancers of technology and the owners of content is not going to be solved by legislation: "As we've seen over and over again, the most successful (by far) 'attack' against piracy is awesome new platforms that give customers what they want, such as Spotify and Netflix."

In addition to I/P provisions, ACTA will also reportedly introduce new regulations about buying medicines online. In effect, it would enforce the patent protections of Big Pharma at the expense of making generics available to poor countries who might not have access to medicines at higher costs.

Laws like ACTA may be more about internet democracy and freedom of speech than simply protecting copyright, or forging international treaties. Another one in the works, the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement) is of concern to the US, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Like ACTA, the negotiations over the TPP are held in secret and without public scrutiny.

I think the takeaway from this past week is that we need to be very alert to new laws and treaties that seek to control the internet and "solve" content abuse and piracy problems by usurping all of our freedoms.

The Internet is too important to the commerce and freedom of speech of too many to be lax about opposing those that would try to restrict this vital pipeline of communication.