Internet users who treat the Web like a complimentary buffet of music and movies are on notice: The Copyright Alert System (CAS) is in effect.
The new system is the result of an agreement between the five largest Internet service providers (ISPs) — AT&T, Cablevision, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Verizon — and copyright watchdogs like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The system has two goals: to educate Internet customers who are unwittingly breaking the law, and to gradually wrestle repeat offenders into submission.
How it Works
Copyrighted content is constantly being exchanged over peer-to-peer (p2p) networks, and while some of this activity is legal, much of it is illegal piracy. Groups like the RIAA and MPAA monitor these uploads and downloads, tracking the IP addresses of computers sharing their copyrighted content.
Under the alert system, copyright owners can report those IP addresses to the ISPs. When an ISP verifies a copyright claim, it sends an alert to the account holder associated with the offending IP address.
At first, the alerts are simple notices like browser pop-ups or emails that explain the copyright holder’s complaint. The notices might even direct the user to websites where the content can be purchased legally.
If an IP address is reported more than twice, the ISP may block Internet access until the account holder confirms that the copyright claim has been read and understood. After four alerts, ISPs may throttle Internet speeds and block access to some of the most frequently visited sites.
But no matter how many warnings are accumulated, the ISPs do not completely cut off their customers from the Internet under the CAS. They also will not disclose the identities of customers to the complaining copyright holders unless required to do so by a court.
Should ISPs Be the Judge?
The ISPs and content owners behind the alerts have organized as the Center for Copyright Information (CCI), the stated goal of which is to “alleviate confusion and help Internet users find legal ways to enjoy the digital content they love.”
Head of CCI Jill Lesser told Ars Technica that the alert system is educational and not punitive, noting that they don’t suspend service — though they may temporarily restrict it. But Internet law attorney Enrico Schaefer says that the new arrangement between ISPs and content owners may lead to wrongful accusations if copyright owners maintain their track record of aggressive action.
“It’s critical to consider if the alerts are triggered by a legitimate copyright claim,” Schaefer said. “If someone has a video that is a mashup of several other videos including some copyrighted content, and that video is then uploaded and shared over p2p, is that really copyright infringement?”
As an example, Schaefer noted a case in which a mother’s video of her infant son dancing to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” was taken down by YouTube in 2007 after Universal Music Publishing Group issued a copyright infringement claim. The mother eventually sued Universal, and after six years of litigation, the matter appears to be headed for trial.
“Copyright owners tend to take a broad view of those rights,” Schaefer said. “Lawyers argue all day long about what is and isn’t copyright infringement. Instead of the courts sorting out our intellectual property rights, you’ve got a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach being taken by the ISPs.”
Customers who feel they’ve received a copyright infringement alert in error can appeal to the American Arbitration Association, but the appeal will cost $35. The fee is only refunded if the appeal is won.
Small Businesses Liable for Customer Piracy
What happens if someone illegally downloads copyrighted content over an open wireless network? Nothing, as long as the network is designated as a public or business network and not a residential one.
“The vast majority of businesses, including those like Starbucks that provide legitimate open Wi-Fi connections, will have an Internet connection that is tailored to a business operation and these business networks are not part of the CAS and will never be sent a Copyright Alert,” Lesser wrote on the CCI website.
But what if you don’t own a Starbucks, and instead own a small coffee shop that provides customers with wireless Internet using a residential connection?
“The practical result is that if an employee of the small business, or someone using an open Wi-Fi connection at the business, engages in infringing activity the primary account owner would receive Alerts,” Lesser wrote. “Nonetheless, these small business accounts would not be subject to disconnection under the CAS any more than a residential subscriber would – termination is not part of the CAS.”
In other words: police the Internet activity of your customers or we’ll block selected websites and slow your connection to a crawl. But at least we’re not disconnecting you!
What do you think of the new Copyright Alert System?
Photo Credits: iStockphoto/Thinkstock.