Securing Copyrights Through Voluntary Cooperation?

by on September 18, 2013 · 0 comments

It’s been over five years since Congress passed major legislation addressing copyright protection, but this hasn’t stopped copyright owners from achieving real progress in securing their expressive works. In cooperation with private-sector stakeholders, rights holders have made several deals aimed at combating copyright infringement and channeling consumer demand for original content toward legitimate outlets. These voluntary agreements will be the subject of a hearing this afternoon (9/18) before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet. This panel marks the latest in a series of hearings the committee launched earlier this year to review the Copyright Act, much of which dates back to 1976 or earlier.

Copyright consensus may sound like an oxymoron, especially in the wake of last year’s bruising legislative battle over SOPA and PIPA. But in reality, there’s no shortage of common ground when it comes to copyright protection. Despite all the controversy that surrounds the issue, copyright isn’t so much a “conflict of visions”, to borrow from Thomas Sowell, but a conflict of tactics, as I argued earlier this year on Cato Unbound.

Indeed, with some notable exceptions, most scholars, business leaders, and policymakers accept that government has a legitimate and important role in securing to inventors and creators the fruits of their labors“. Unsurprisingly, the devil is in the details, where genuinely tough questions arise regarding the government’s proper role in policing the Internet for copyright violations. Should the law hold online intermediaries accountable for their users’ infringing acts? What remedies should the law afford rights holders whose works are unlawfully distributed all over the Internet, often by profit-generating foreign actors?

Although Congress has struggled mightily with these questions, business leaders from a variety of sectors have worked together to devise several approaches to the problem of copyright infringement that go above and beyond the Copyright Act. Perhaps most notably, in February 2013, a coalition of five major ISPs and several trade associations representing filmmakers and artists announced the launch of the Copyright Alert System (“CAS”). Administered by the Center for Copyright Information, the CAS aims to educate users about copyright law—and deter them from violating it—by delivering Copyright Alert notices to ISP subscribers found to be sharing infringing files on peer-to-peer networks.

It’s too early to render a verdict on the CAS’s effectiveness, but as data accumulates in coming months and years, researchers will surely examine how the system has impacted user behavior. Similar approaches to infringement by ISP subscribers have been tried in other countries such as France—albeit on a mandatory, not voluntary, basis—and several studies have found that these so-called “graduated response” systems have indeed reduced infringement in nations where they’ve been implemented. But other studies have reached the opposite conclusion, so more research is needed in this area. Whether or not CAS succeeds, however, experimentation involving novel approaches to copyright protection is crucial for the future of creative expression, as is experimentation among business models to monetize content.

Speaking of voluntary approaches to copyright protection, Google last week unveiled a report describing its anti-piracy efforts. As Google’s Fred von Lohmann explained:

[W]e are releasing a report, “How Google Fights Piracy,” bringing together in one place an overview of the programs, policies, and technologies we have put in place to combat piracy online.

The report discusses how Google penalizes websites that receive a high percentage of DMCA takedown notices in Google’s search results, hopefully thereby directing users toward legitimate sources of content. It explains the “Content ID” system pioneered by YouTube, which enables rights holders to identify potentially infringing videos posted to the site, and gives copyright owners the choice to monetize such videos in lieu of removing them altogether. And the report points out that in 2012, Google voluntarily disabled ad service to 46,000 websites dedicated to infringement. Check out the full report for much more information on these efforts and many others that Google has taken to better secure copyrights—and for another perspective, check out a MPAA-commissioned study released today critiquing the role that Internet search engines play in helping users find infringing websites.

After today’s hearing, I’ll have more thoughts on the state of voluntary cooperation to protect copyrights, and on the debate about whether file lockers and search engines ought to do more to combat infringement.

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