A bill designed to fight online piracy just misses a full Senate vote. That's good news for opponents who say it will hurt legitimate business websites, too.
Businesses with websites dodged a bullet late yesterday. A controversial bill designed to shut down websites with stolen intellectual property unanimously passed the Senate Judiciary Committee -- but the actions of a lone Senator kept the bill from going to the full Senate.
The Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property (PROTECT IP) Act is intended to stop the piracy of movies, music, and sports merchandise, and other items. It sounds like a pretty good idea, at least in theory.
According to BroadbandBreakfast, the "PROTECT IP Act includes a provision that would provide a narrow definition of what infringing activities that the Justice Department would use to identify rogue sites. It would also give the Attorney General authority to bring action--including seeking financial restitution--against those sites. Rights holders would be eligible to sue rogue websites for copyright infringements."
But that definition isn't enough for the bill's opponents. They claim the law would still punish websites that play even an indirect role in copyright infringement. If passed into law, PROTECT IP could target sites like Google, Yahoo!, and eBay, where it's possible to find infringing items -- even if those sites aren't directly hosting the pirated material.
You might wonder how this would effect you -- your small business isn't hosting pirated movies or selling counterfeit NFL merchandise. The problems start with the definitions of intellectual property, copyright infringement, and fair use.
Let's say you own a cheese store that you promote with an e-commerce and blog site. One day, The New York Times runs an article on how cheese not only tastes good but will also improve your love life. To drum up business from the lovelorn, you decide to just copy and paste the entire article and post it on your blog.
Under current U.S. copyright law, that's illegal. Since you aren't a direct competitor to the Times, however, it's unlikely the Times would care. And if they did care, they would just send you a message asking you to take the article down, because that's all the current law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, allows the Times to do.
If PROTECT IP were law, the same mistake could get your entire website taken down.
This kind of innocuous copyright infringement happens all of the time. I see my articles posted in full on lots of websites that didn't pay me or my publisher for the privilege. It's aggravating, and sometimes I just send them a note and politely ask for the content to be removed. (Which is usually done.)
Businesses should, even now, take great care in what content goes on their sites. Copyright infringement is very easy to do as website editors and content providers look to fill their pages with content that will attract the notice of search engines and hopefully customers. Content can be cited and used in small parcels under fair use, but people abuse that privilege all the time. It doesn't help that fair use is, at best, hard to define.
There's also potentially a bigger problem for your business. You may think there aren't pirated movies on your website, but are you absolutely sure about that?
In a recent two-part series of articles ZDNet's Stephen Chapman exposed a great deal of pornography, pirated media, and personal data residing on prestigious university websites including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and MIT.
Chapman's not-so-deep search reveals that any website can potentially be the underground home for content that a business definitely does not want to host; content that even under existing laws can get people sued and even arrested. The PROTECT IP Act just makes it all that much easier to deactivate a site when any infringed content is found.
For now, PROTECT IP is not going anywhere. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), stopped the bill from going to the full Senate, citing ambiguities within the bill that could stifle innovation and legitimate commerce.
Businesses should pay attention to bills like this, usually sponsored by the Motion Picture Association of America or the Recording Industry Association of America. Their fight against piracy is noble, but the laws they want to push through can cast nets that sweep up even the most innocuous intellectual property violation.
And in the meantime, audit your company servers and sites to be sure your content is clear by every legal standard.
Brian Proffitt is a veteran technology journalist/analyst with experience in a variety of technologies, including cloud, virtualization, and consumer devices. He is also an adjunct instructor with the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. Check out Brian's website, Proffitt Margins, for more information.