January 19, 2012

Copyright in Congress, Court, and Public

Filed under: Chilling Effects, censorship, code, copyright — wseltzer @ 4:30 pm

Yesterday, while hundreds of sites (including this one, along with Google, Wikipedia, and Reddit) were going black to protest SOPA and PIPA, the Supreme Court released its own copyright blackout, Golan v. Holder (PDF). Justice Ginsburg’s majority opinion held that the First Amendment did not prohibit reclaiming works from the public domain.

Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Alito, gave a stirring dissent. Copyright law, he said, must be “designed to encourage new production,” not just redistribute works already created. Re-copyrighting already-written works “does not encourage anyone to produce a single new work.” Instead, backwards-looking copyright grants create a serious public choice problem:

Whereas forward-looking copyright laws tend to benefit those whose identities are not yet known (the writer who has not yet written a book, the musician who has not yet composed a song), when a copyright law is primarily backward looking the risk is greater that Congress is trying to help known beneficiaries at the expense of badly organized unknown users who find it difficult to argue and present their case to Congress.

We see the same problem with SOPA and PIPA. The legislation pits organized incumbents against future innovators. Congress risks being captured by the lobbying power of current copyright industries, organized in the MPAA and RIAA, before the artists who have yet to create and the industries who support them can find their political voice. But the SOPAstrike reminds us that more than industry interests are at stake here — the general public, the editors of and users of Wikipedia, the contributors and readers of Reddit and the coders and browsers of Mozilla also create and bring value to the Internet.

Golan reminds us too that we can’t count on the courts to help us where Congress gets copyright wrong. The majority leaves a great deal to Congressional discretion, as it did in Eldred (striking down a challenge to copyright term extension): “the Copyright Clause does not demand that each copyright provision, examined discretely, operate to induce new works.” In a chilling phrase, the Golan majority quotes the district court’s finding of a “settled rule that private censorship via copyright enforcement does not implicate First Amendment concerns.”

Perhaps a later Court will see the First Amendment as a stronger check on Congressional power to restrict speech in the name of copyright, but where we can’t count on 5 (Justices), defenders of free communications on the open Internet will need to count to 51% of Congress. Keep up the pressure, it’s having an impact!

January 18, 2012

Keep Copyright Balance: Stop SOPA and PIPA

Filed under: Chilling Effects, censorship, code, copyright — wseltzer @ 7:48 am

As I wrote over on the Tor Project blog, SOPA and PIPA (the House’s “Stop Online Piracy Act” and the Senate’s “Protect-IP Act”) go beyond enforcement of copyright. These copyright bills would strain the infrastructure of the Internet, on which many free communications — anonymous or identified — depend. Originally, the bills proposed that so-called “rogue sites” should be blocked through the Internet’s Domain Name System (DNS). That would have broken DNSSEC security and shared U.S. censorship tactics with those of China’s “great firewall.”

Now, while we hear that DNS-blocking is off the table, the bills remain threatening to the network of intermediaries who carry online speech. Most critically to Tor, SOPA contained a provision forbidding “circumvention” of court-ordered blocking that was written broadly enough that it could apply to Tor — which helps its users to “circumvent” local-network censorship. Further, both bills broaden the reach of intermediary liability, to hold conduits and search engines liable for user-supplied infringement. The private rights of action and “safe harbors” could force or encourage providers to censor well beyond the current DMCA’s “notice and takedown” provision (of which Chilling Effects documents numerous burdens and abuses).

On January 18, we’re joining Wikipedia, Reddit, the MIT Media Lab, and hundreds of others in protest, turning a portion of the Tor site black to call attention to copyright balance and remind the US Congress and voters of the value of the open Internet.

U.S. citizens, please call or write, to urge your representatives to stop SOPA and PIPA. Elsewhere in the world, keep an eye out for similar legislation. and bring the fight there too.

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