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Debugging Legislation: PROTECT IP

Wendy Seltzer

There's more than a hint of theatrics in the draft PROTECT IP bill (pdf, via dontcensortheinternet ) that has emerged as son-of-COICA, starting with the ungainly acronym of a name. Given its roots in the entertainment industry, that low drama comes as no surprise. Each section name is worse than the last: "Eliminating the Financial Incentive to Steal Intellectual Property Online" (Sec. 4) gives way to "Voluntary action for Taking Action Against Websites Stealing American Intellectual Property" (Sec. 5).

Techdirt gives a good overview of the bill, so I'll just pick some details:

  • Infringing activities. In defining "infringing activities," the draft explicitly includes circumvention devices ("offering goods or services in violation of section 1201 of title 17″), as well as copyright infringement and trademark counterfeiting. Yet that definition also brackets the possibility of "no [substantial/significant] use other than ...." Substantial could incorporate the "merely capable of substantial non-infringing use" test of Betamax.
  • Blocking non-domestic sites. Sec. 3 gives the Attorney General a right of action over "nondomestic domain names", including the right to demand remedies from (A) domain name system server operators, (B) financial transaction providers, (C), Internet advertising services, and (D) "an interactive computer service (def. from 230(f)) shall take technically feasible and reasonable measures ... to remove or disable access to the Internet site associated with the domain name set forth in the order, or a hypertext link to such Internet site."
  • Private right of action. Sec. 3 and Sec. 4 appear to be near duplicates (I say appear, because unlike computer code, we don't have a macro function to replace the plaintiff, so the whole text is repeated with no diff), replacing nondomestic domain with "domain" and permitting private plaintiffs — "a holder of an intellectual property right harmed by the activities of an Internet site dedicated to infringing activities occurring on that Internet site." Oddly, the statute doesn't say the simpler "one whose rights are infringed," so the definition must be broader. Could a movie studio claim to be hurt by the infringement of others' rights, or MPAA enforce on behalf of all its members? Sec. 4 is missing (d)(2)(D)
  • WHOIS. The "applicable publicly accessible database of registrations" gets a new role as source of notice for the domain registrant, "to the extent such addresses are reasonably available." (c)(1)
  • Remedies. The bill specifies injunctive relief only, not money damages, but threat of an injunction can be backed by the unspecified threat of contempt for violating one.
  • Voluntary action. Finally the bill leaves room for "voluntary action" by financial transaction providers and advertising services, immunizing them from liability to anyone if they choose to stop providing service, notwithstanding any agreements to the contrary. This provision jeopardizes the security of online businesses, making them unable to contract for financial services against the possibility that someone will wrongly accuse them of infringement. 5(a) We've already seen that it takes little to convince service providers to kick users off, in the face of pressure short of full legal process (see everyone vs Wikileaks, Facebook booting activists, and numerous misfired DMCA takedowns); this provision insulates that insecurity further.

In short, rather than "protecting" intellectual and creative industry, this bill would make it less secure, giving the U.S. a competitive disadvantage in online business.

By Wendy Seltzer, Law professor
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