By Barry Neil Shrum & Nathan Drake
Since before the day that Napster was a twinkle in Sean Parker’s eye – well over a decade ago now – the legal and music industries have each struggled with ways to cope with and transform their dusty old business models from the physical status quo to the digital revolution. After the industry watchdog, the RIAA, initially targeted the Diamond Multimedia’s Rio MP3 player and then Parker, and then finally individuals were illegally downloading, the major record labels began to realize something: that perhaps the fact that consumers were downloading music illegally was merely a symptom of the problem rather than the source of the problem. So, the RIAA also began suing P2P file-sharing websites that sprang up instantly in the place of Napster, websites like Kazaa and LimeWire. While this method proved to be a bit more effective, the process still accomplished little in preventing future P2P file sharing services from materializing, each taking the place of its predecessor and each growing as rapidly as the one before. In yet another continuing effort to solve the music industry’s nightmare, new legislation has been introduced to Senate which is entitled “Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act.” (S. 3804)
The purpose of the “Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act” (COICA) is to provide owners of intellectual property additional weapons in the battle against illegal downloading. As indicated, the inherent difficulty of deterring and prosecuting these myriad individuals who are profiting off copyrighted materials is that they easily hide behind the anonymous wall of the Internet. Many of the sites providing access to this illegal property are situated well off the shores of the United States, overseas and beyond the long reach of the court’s jurisdiction.
Another problem is the sheer mass of the problem. One study indicates that as much as 1 in 4 Internet users download illegal music – an astonishing statistic! Let me state that another way: 25% of the traffic on the Internet is to sites that allow illegal downloading of copyrighted material, be it digital books, movies or music.
As Senator Leahy, one of the sponsors of COICA says, it is essential that the government enforce a
“means for preventing the importation of infringing goods by rogue websites, particularly for sites that are registered overseas.”
Through focusing on the domain names, COICA gives the Department of Justice the authority to pursue and prosecute offending website, both domestically and abroad. Incentivizing and rewarding creative endeavors remains the core ideology of American copyright protection, and instilling this value in our society is crucial if our society will continue to create. According to the Chamber of Commerce, “…American intellectual property accounts for more than $5 trillion and IP-intensive industries employ more than 18 million workers.” Therefore, protecting this integral aspect of American ingenuity and economy should be a priority.
Additionally, COICA provides universal jurisdiction to the Department of Justice in pursuing and prosecuting domain names that solicit American intellectual property in the United States. If the law succeeds, individuals committing copyright infringement will no longer be able to hide behind the protection of their native country, without fearing that their action can and will be pursued by the United States.
In addition, COICA allows third party participants to be prosecuted for “enabling” the website to sustain itself and lend legitimacy to the practices and products of the website. As Senator Leahy states, “These [third] parties monetize the Internet site by enabling U.S. consumers to access the infringing website, to purchase content and products off the website, and to view advertisements on the website. Without partnering with these entities, the financial incentive to run an infringing Internet site is greatly diminished.” Those directly and indirectly supporting copyright infringement will be prosecuted.
For the purposes of COICA, the government defines a website as, “dedicated to infringing activities.” Due to the outstanding number of infringing websites, the government intends to pursue only the most “egregious rogue websites that are trafficking in infringing goods.” To be considered an infringing website, one of two criteria must be identified. First, the website exhibits the “existing threshold for forfeiture” under U.S.C. 2323, or the website reveals no commercial value and intends to only sell copyrightable items protected under Title 17 of the United States Code.
One of the primary opponents to the passage of COICA is the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). Although CEA supports and agrees with the general direction of COICA, they feel its vague and wide reaching language could potentially harm legitimate businesses that are not committing copyright infringement. CEA says, “Our primary concern is that the scope of S. 3804 was significantly broader than its intended purpose of shutting down ‘rogue’ or foreign websites solely engaging in the exchange of pirated content or goods.” The ambiguous language of COICA could potentially diminish previous milestone cases according to CEA, including the “Betamax Case” determined by the Supreme Court in 1984.
While the technological environment is constantly changing and creating new hurdles for the consumer and business, the importance of copyright protection still remains. A constantly transforming environment requires innovative and relevant legislation to meet the creative needs of our culture. In an attempt to counter this decade long battle, legislation like COICA would allow the government to target the source of global piracy, and enforce the relevance and weight of American copyright protection. But our legislators must be certain to craft language that does not impede the rights of its citizens. Balance is need lest we resort to the overreaching, irrational, and over reactive activity the RIAA engaged itself in over the past decade.
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