Copyright Protection: Be Careful What You Believe

For a clear illustration of how entrenched economic interests attempt to stop technological and human change, one needs to look no further than the American motion picture and recording industries.

Of course, in our digital age, piracy of copyrighted content does happen. But there’s now clear evidence that the motion picture and recording industries are inflating the amount of piracy they claim is occurring. Not only do they misrepresent the facts, but these groups are aggressively lobbying to take rights away from consumers of their media products.

The most recent inflation of these claims came during a hearing in early summer by the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC). The commission was honoring a request by the Senate to investigate China’s seeming inability to protect and enforce the rights of American intellectual property owners.

As reports from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and other organizations were submitted, witnesses shot them down as an absurd stretch of the facts. Most agreed with the U.S. Government Accountability Office, who told Congress earlier this year there was no evidence of the million dollar losses claimed by the industries who were crying piracy.

In fact, there was evidence that copyright infringements might actually benefit the American entertainment industries.

Fritz Foley, a professor in the Harvard University Business School, told the USITC that it was madness to assume that someone who would pay some low amount for a pirated product is the same person who would pay some amount that’s six or 10 times that amount for a genuine one. These multinational companies, he said, have an incentive to make the losses seem “very, very large.”


It’s one thing to inflate piracy figures, but the MPAA and RIAA have far more dangerous ideas for the future. This was revealed this spring when they submitted a wishlist to Victoria Espinel, the Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator at the White House.

The comments were revealing, since they provided a window into how these content owners view both intellectual property and the public interest. The joint statement filed by the MPAA and the RIAA and others mapped out a vision of the future where the priorities of big media companies would become integrated into the Internet, law enforcement agencies and educational institutions.

Among the desires of these content owners is “anti-infringement” software for home computers that can manage copyright issues. To put it plainly, the entertainment industry wants citizens to voluntarily install software that constantly scans home computers and identifies and deletes files determined by the companies to be “infringing” their copyright.

Also, they recommend that network administrators implement “solutions” that address infringement on their networks. They “suggested” the network operators use filtering methods, including protocol filtering, fingerprint-based filtering, bandwidth throttling and other technologies.

Even if one agrees with these tactics, they have been proven not to work. All automated copyright blocking systems fail to protect fair use for private citizens. And they won’t make any lasting dent on infringing behavior. Instead, they just invite the use of more encryption and private “darknets” for downloads.

The content owners want more. They want U.S. customs officers to work for their cause, and want customs declaration forms to be amended to require the disclosure of pirated or counterfeit items being brought into the United States.

Think of the issues this raises: Does that iPod you are carrying contain illegally downloaded songs? Does your laptop have a movie ripped from a DVD? Was that book you bought overseas “licensed” for use in the United States? These are the kinds of questions the content owners want you to answer on your customs form when you cross borders or return home from abroad.

With the intrusive questions, they also want more searches and seizures of electronic devices by customs agents. Once these agents are empowered to search every electronic device for “pirated” content, digital privacy will disappear for international travelers.

The motion picture and recording industries also want the federal government to develop a process to identify those online sites that facilitate the theft of intellectual property. Since most of these sites are offshore, the content producers want to move their intellectual property rights to the center of U.S. foreign policy.


But it gets worse. The movie industry wants the government’s help in advance of the planned release of what it considers to be “a blockbuster motion picture.” The MPAA said such movies attract the focused efforts of copyright thieves, who will seek to obtain and distribute prerelease versions or to undermine legitimate release by unauthorized distribution through other channels.

The MPAA wants law enforcement agencies to plan a focused preventive and responsive strategy to prevent piracy. An interagency task force, it said, should work with the industry to coordinate and make advance plans to try to interdict these most damaging forms of copyright theft, and to react swiftly with enforcement actions where necessary.

Let me state this more clearly. Hollywood studios would deputize the FBI and Department of Homeland Security forces to provide taxpayer-supported muscle to protect summer blockbuster movies. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) noted that jokes have been made about SWAT team raids on stereotypical file-sharers in college dorm rooms. But, it said, this entertainment industry request to “interdict... and to react swiftly with enforcement actions” brings that joke ridiculously close to reality!

Even with the grand wishes of the content owners, the assault continues on their customers.

Lawsuits were recently filed against 14,000 “John Does” who allegedly downloaded movies from BitTorrent, the peer-to-peer file-sharing site. The lawsuits were filed on behalf of the producers and financiers of independent productions that included the Academy Award-winning “The Hurt Locker” as an attempt to save cinema by helping filmmakers profit from their intellectual property.

Civil liberties organizations argue the lawsuits are simply a moneymaking venture that are using dubious litigation tactics to go after large groups of individuals to generate profit.

“These are organizations that are formed for the purpose of suing, and they view the legal system as a system for making money and then use it to fund additional lawsuits,” Jennifer Granick, an EFF attorney, told The Washington Post.

The resistance to change is more frightening than ever.

Frank Beacham is a New York City-based writer. Visit his website atwww.frankbeacham.comand his blog

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.