Nov 30 | 2011

Cyber Monday and Pirates

In conjunction with Cyber Monday, the Justice Department announced that it shut down 150 web sites that were selling counterfeit goods.  This was part of the Justice Department’s ongoing efforts to disrupt sites involved in IP infringement by seizing the domain names of sites that sell counterfeit goods and/or offer pirated movies, music or other works of authorship.  After government seizure, visitors to the sites see a large banner that notifies them that the site has been targeted due to intellectual property infringement.

Intellectual property protection – and its resulting theft – has always been a concern to government and rights holders alike.  By one estimate, counterfeit goods and pirated works cause $125 billion in losses per year.  But the explosion of the Internet within the last two decades has altered the playing field in ways that we as a society are still trying to sort out.

Owners of intellectual property have a duty to police against infringing uses, and as more business is transacted over the Internet and it becomes easier to disseminate information over cyberspace, incidents of infringement are escalating.  Additional problems arise when efforts to protect intellectual property rights are perceived to be overreaching.  Powerful rights holders such as the Motion Picture Association of America and the recording industry have long been at odds with public interest groups (and, more recently, technology companies such as Google and Facebook) over the appropriate amount of controls afforded to rights holders, but the Internet explosion has escalated these tensions.

Congress is trying to offer solutions, but its efforts have not evaded controversy.  In both the Senate (as seen by the PROTECT IP Act) and the House of Representatives (reflected in the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)), legislation would seek to allow the federal government to seize the domain names of foreign-operated sites (as opposed to just U.S. owned) and to obligate Internet service and network providers and Internet advertising services to suspend services to sites accused of facilitating infringement.  (Both bills seek further protections, but these details are two of the more controversial elements.)

Admittedly, there are few easy answers to the issue of online infringement.  There will always be people who try to make a quick buck and see counterfeiting as a means of accomplishing that.  There will also always be those who think content should be available free for all to use, despite the expense and effort that goes into creating that content.  The Internet has created the problem of “it must be free because I found it online,” but the larger problem lies in what to do about it.