Last week was a bad one for Internet pirates - as well as for those who believe the companies that make billions of dollars by distributing content shouldn't dictate copyright law for the rest of us.
On Friday, three founders of Pirate Bay lost an appeal of their April 2009 conviction for aiding and abetting illegal file downloads. A Swedish appeals court cut their prison sentences from one year each to between 4 and 10 months, while at the same time raising their fines from a collective $4.6 million to $6.5 million.
Remember, Pirate Bay hosted no illegal files - it merely pointed to sites that did. But that was enough to violate Swedish copyright law. The case has generated enough furor over in the land of Absolut and ABBA that an entire political party arose based on the principles of Pirate Bay. Pirate Party leader Rick Falkvinge was quoted by the The Guardian thusly:
"This case was politically motivated from the start and (the problem) must be solved politically... File sharing is increasing every day and the only thing this means is that more and more people will try to hide what they are doing on the internet."
Things are even worse over in the US. Earlier this month Oregon Senator Ron Wyden managed to derail a bill - the Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act (COICA) - that would allow the US Attorney General to seize websites where alleged copyright violations were the "central activity."
No matter - a few days later, the US Department of Homeland Security apparently decided it don't need no stinkin' bill and seized the domains of some 77 sites, according to TorrentFreak.com. There was no prior notice; the sites were just taken down, replaced by an official notice stating "This domain name has been seized by ICE -- Department of Homeland Security investigations, pursuant to a seizure warrant by a Unites States District Court under the authority of 18 U.S.C. SS 981 and 2323."
Most of these sites are suspected of selling counterfeit goods like fake Louis Vuitton bags and Timberland Shoes. But included in the sweep was Torrent-Finder, a site (like Pirate Bay) that merely points to sites where potentially illegal content is hosted (which, by the way, is what search engines like Google and Bing also do, though that's not their "central activity").
According to published reports, the sites themselves weren't taken down - just their .com domains. Already several of them have opened up shop at .info domains over which the federales have no control. Apparently this is how the DHS plans to win the war on terror - by temporarily inconveniencing purveyors of knockoff handbags and sites that tell you where to find purloined copies of "Jersey Shore."
No one's saying makers of cheap foreign knockoffs should be given carte blanche, or that artists don't deserve to be protected against people who would illegally profit on their work. Copyright law has always been a balancing act between the benefits of sharing content with the public and allowing content makers to profit enough to keep the electricity on while the creative juices flow.
Those scales have been completely tipped by US corporations. It's like there's a bag of feathers on one scale and a circus wagon full of elephants on the other.
Time and again, media companies - led by a few close friends in Congress - have managed to drive through laws that wear the concepts of fair and personal use to a nub. Take, for instance, the Copyright Term Expansion Act of 1998, aka the Mickey Mouse Protection Act. Sponsored by then-Congressman Sony Bono, the act added another 20 years to the life of existing copyrights - a gift to Disney, whose copyright on Mickey Mouse would have expired in 1999 without that extension. (That followed on a 19-year extension added in 1976.) And that expiration would of course have led to the complete downfall of Western civilization, not to mention a thriving market in adult content for rodentophiles.
If the DOJ or DHS can seize sites based on their own determination of infringing "central activity," where does it stop? You can bet whistle-blower site Wikileaks.org is high on its list.
...COICA gives the government dramatic new copyright enforcement powers, in particular the ability to make entire websites disappear from the Internet if infringement, or even links to infringement, are deemed to be "central" to the purpose of the site. Rather than just targeting files that actually infringe copyright law, COICA's "nuclear-option" design has the government blacklisting entire sites out of the domain name system -- a reckless scheme that will undermine global Internet infrastructure and censor legitimate online speech.
Does that sound like an InterWebs where you want to live?
Should the federal government have the right to pull the plug on sites it doesn't like? Email me: [email protected].