Here’s one you don’t see everyday. The RIAA is telling a court that it needs to be careful about too much copyright protection. Really. This is in the lawsuit over “Stairway to Heaven” that we’ve been covering for a while now. As we noted, the 9th Circuit brought the case back to life after what had appeared to be a good result, saying that Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway” did not infringe on the copyright in the Spirit song “Taurus.” While we were a bit nervous about the case being reopened after a good result, as copyright lawyer Rick Sanders explained in a pair of excellent guest posts, there were good reasons to revisit the case — in part to fix the 9th Circuit’s weird framework for determining if a song has infringed, and in part to fix some bad jury instructions.
Anti-piracy outfit Rightscorp says that it’s working on a new method to extract cash settlements from suspected Internet pirates. The company says new technology will lock users’ browsers and prevent Internet access until they pay a fine. To encourage ISPs to play along, Rightscorp says the system could help to limit their copyright liability.
A report crunching more than six years of copyright lawsuits filed in the U.S. has revealed that porn troll Malibu Media is the country’s most litigious plaintiff. The company, which demands thousands of dollars from individual file-sharers, filed 4,332 lawsuits since January 2009, fifteen times more than its nearest rival. Overall, it’s estimated that 90% of file-sharing cases are settled out of court.
The RIAA has just submitted its latest tax filing to the IRS, covering the fiscal year ending March 31, 2014. Time for us to see where the music industry’s anti-piracy arm stands.
In previous years the RIAA reported a massive decline in revenue after the record labels cut back on their membership dues, but this trend now appears to have stopped.
Total revenue according to the latest filing is $24.2 million, a slight increase from $24.1 million the year before. Despite the stabilizing income, which mostly comes from the record label’s membership dues, the RIAA continues to trim employees.
Over the past five years the number of employees at the RIAA has been slashed in half, dropping from 117 to just 55.
In its most recent filing the RIAA lists 55 people on the payroll compared to 58 the year before. In total these employees earned $11.7 million of which more than 25% went into the pockets of three top executives.
Interestingly, while more than half of the organization’s workers have been let go, the RIAA’s top employees have enjoyed salary increases year after year, including some healthy bonuses.
For many years, major U.S. entertainment companies have been trying to gain the power to make websites disappear from the Internet at their say-so. The Internet blacklist bills SOPA and PIPA were part of that strategy, along with the Department of Homeland Security’s project of seizing websites that someone accused of copyright infringement. Hollywood’s quest for more censorship power was on display again today at a House of Representatives committee hearing that was supposed to be discussing reforms at ICANN, the nonprofit organization that oversees the Internet’s domain name system. Amidst a discussion of new top-level domain names (such as “.sucks”), a lawyer representing the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and other groups told the House Judiciary Committee’s Internet subcommittee that ICANN should force the companies that register domain names to suspend domains based on accusations of copyright infringement.
If this sounds familiar, that’s probably because it’s exactly the sort of system that the disastrous SOPA bill would have created—one where entire websites can be forced to go dark, without a day in court, because some material on the site is accused of infringing a copyright. We wrote about this strategy in March, when it appeared in the US Trade Representative’s “Notorious Markets List,” also at Hollywood’s request.
This new strategy to obtain censorship power is based on vague language in the agreements that ICANN made with the companies selling names in new top-level domains like .website, .ninja, and .biz. The agreements say that domain name registrars “shall take reasonable and prompt steps to investigate and respond appropriately to any reports of abuse.” The agreements don’t mention copyright, or require domain registrars to disable a domain without a court order. But that didn’t stop Steve Metalitz, the lawyer for a coalition that includes MPAA and RIAA, from arguing that “reports of abuse that are submitted to registrars by right-holders” should lead to “investigation” and “redress.” Of course, a registrar like Tucows or Namecheap has no control over the contents of websites—they simply register domain names. From a technical standpoint, the only “redress” a registrar can offer to a copyright holder such as a movie studio is to suspend a site’s domain name, making the entire site inaccessible to most visitors.
The Senate today is holding a key procedural vote that would allow the Trans-Pacific Partnership to be “fast-tracked.”
So who can read the text of the TPP? Not you, it’s classified. Even members of Congress can only look at it one section at a time in the Capitol’s basement, without most of their staff or the ability to keep notes.
But there’s an exception: if you’re part of one of 28 U.S. government-appointed trade advisory committees providing advice to the U.S. negotiators. The committees with the most access to what’s going on in the negotiations are 16 “Industry Trade Advisory Committees,” whose members include AT&T, General Electric, Apple, Dow Chemical, Nike, Walmart and the American Petroleum Institute.
The TPP is an international trade agreement currently being negotiated between the US and 11 other countries, including Japan, Australia, Chile, Singapore and Malaysia. Among other things, it could could strengthen copyright laws, limit efforts at food safety reform and allow domestic policies to be contested by corporations in an international court. Its impact is expected to be sweeping, yet venues for public input hardly exist.
Industry Trade Advisory Committees, or ITACs, are cousins to Federal Advisory Committees like the National Petroleum Council that I wrote about recently. However, ITACs are functionally exempt from many of the transparency rules that generally govern Federal Advisory Committees, and their communications are largely shielded from FOIA in order to protect “third party commercial and/or financial information from disclosure.” And even if for some reason they wanted to tell someone what they’re doing, members must sign non-disclosure agreements so they can’t “compromise” government negotiating goals. Finally, they also escape requirements to balance their industry members with representatives from public interest groups.
The result is that the Energy and Energy Services committee includes the National Mining Association and America’s Natural Gas Alliance but only one representative from a company dedicated to less-polluting wind and solar energy.
The Information and Communications Technologies, Services, and Electronic Commerce committee includes representatives from Verizon and AT&T Services Inc. (a subsidiary of AT&T), which domestically are still pushing hard against new net neutrality rules that stop internet providers from creating more expensive online fast-lanes.
And the Intellectual Property Rights committee includes the Recording Industry Association of America, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Apple, Johnson and Johnson and Yahoo, rather than groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which shares the industry’s expertise in intellectual property policy but has an agenda less aligned with business.
During the summer of 2013 we voiced our doubts about an initiative from the Center for Copyright Information (CCI).
The group, which has the MPAA and RIAA as key members, had just started piloting a kindergarten through sixth grade curriculum on copyright in California schools.
The curriculum was drafted in collaboration with iKeepSafe and aims to teach kids the basics of copyright. Unfortunately, the lesson materials were rather one-sided and mostly ignored fair use and the more flexible copyright licences Creative Commons provides.
These concerns were picked up by the mainstream press, creating a massive backlash. The CCI and other partners emphasized that the pilot was tested with an early draft and promised that the final curriculum would be more balanced.
In the months that followed the lesson plans indeed got a major overhaul and last summer the “Copyright and Creativity for Ethical Digital Citizens” curriculum was finalized.
As reported previously, the new and improved version was indeed expanded to discuss fair use principles and Creative Commons licenses. However, as far as Hollywood is concerned it now includes too much discussion on fair use.
TorrentFreak received a copy of a leaked email the MPAA’s Howard Gantman sent to various insiders last summer, explaining what happened. It starts off by mentioning the negative response to the leak and states that the MPAA and RIAA will try to keep a low profile in future, probably to prevent another wave of critique.
As we’ve noted many times in the past, the entertainment industry likes to take a multi-pronged approach to its quixotic efforts to “stop piracy” (which could be much better dealt with by simply giving the public more of what they want). Working on federal copyright law to continually expand it is one main strategy, but there are a lot of others as well, including pressuring private companies to voluntarily censor content, getting international trade agreements to force laws to change and… getting random state laws to force through big changes quietly. This last strategy has come into focus lately, especially with the rise of so-called “true origin” bills, that are almost certainly unconstitutional, but are rapidly popping up in a variety of states. This is actually a replay of an old strategy. I remember similar “true origin” efforts being pushed about a decade ago, and I’d thought they’d completely died out… but they’re back.
The way they work is pretty simple: they outlaw anonymity on the internet if your website distributes any kind of audiovisual work. The point of this is twofold: one, for those who “register” and reveal their name and address, it makes it easier for the RIAAs and MPAAs of the world to sue a site for copyright infringement. And, for those who don’t reveal their names, the RIAA and can ask the states to prosecute the site owners for failing to reveal their names.
It would be fair to say that the relationship between the world’s major recording labels and streaming music service Grooveshark is a rocky one at best.
Founded in 2006 as a site where users could upload their own music and listen to streams for free, friction with record companies built alongside Grooveshark’s growth. EMI first filed a copyright infringement suit against the company in 2009 but it was withdrawn later that year after the pair reached a licensing agreement.
Since then there have been major and ongoing disputes with the labels of the RIAA who accuse Grooveshark of massive copyright infringement. Those behind the service insist that Grooveshark is simply a YouTube-like site which is entitled to enjoy the safe harbor protections of the DMCA.
Part of Grooveshark’s DMCA responsibilities is to remove infringing content once a copyright holder asks for it to be taken down. Grooveshark doesn’t publish any kind of transparency report but there is nothing to suggest that in 2015 it doesn’t take that responsibility extremely seriously.
However, Google’s transparency report reveals that the world’s major recording labels are currently hitting Grooveshark particularly hard. In fact, between the RIAA, IFPI and several affiliated anti-piracy groups, Google handled 346,619 complaints during the past month alone, with up to 10,000 URLs reported in a single notice.
In recent years copyright holders have demanded stricter anti-piracy measures from ISPs, search engines, advertising networks and payment processors, with varying results.
Continuing this trend various entertainment industry groups are now going after companies that offer domain name services.
The MPAA, for example, has joined the domain name system oversight body ICANN and is pushing for policy changes from the inside.
A few days ago the RIAA added more pressure. The music group sent a letter to ICANN on behalf of several industry players asking for tougher measures against pirate domains.
The RIAA’s senior vice president Victoria Sheckler wants the Internet to be a safe place for all, where music creation and distribution can thrive.
“… we expect all in the internet ecosystem to take responsible measures to deter copyright infringement to help meet this goal,” she notes.
The music groups believe, however, that domain registrars don’t do enough to combat piracy. ICANN’s most recent registrar agreement states that domain names should not be used for copyright infringement, but most registrars fail to take action in response.
Instead, many registrars simply note that it’s not their responsibility to act against pirate sites.
“We […] do not see how it is an appropriate response from a registrar to tell a complainant that it has investigated or responded appropriately to a copyright abuse complaint by stating it does not provide non-registrar related services to the site in question,” Sheckler writes.
In what appears to be a coordinated effort to pressure ICANN and other players in the domain name industry, the U.S. Government also chimed in last week.
According to the U.S. Trade Representative, Canada-based Tucows is reported as “an example of a registrar that fails to take action when notified of its clients’ infringing activity.”
Despite the critique, it’s far from clear that Tucows and other registrars are doing anything wrong. In fact, the Electronic Frontier Foundation
“Domain registrars do not have an obligation to respond to a random third party’s complaints about the behavior of a domain name user. Unless ordered by a court, registrars cannot be compelled to take down a website,” notes Jeremy Malcolm, EFF’s Senior Global Policy Analyst.
“What the entertainment industry groups are doing is exaggerating the obligations that registrars of global top-level domains (gTLDs) have under their agreement with ICANN to investigate reports of illegal activity by domain owners, an expansion of responsibilities that is, to put it mildly, extremely controversial, and not reflected in current laws or norms.”
Law or no law, the entertainment industry groups are not expected to back down. They hope that ICANN will help to convince registrars that pirate sites should be disconnected, whether they like it or not.