The Copyright Alert System: A Cautious Experiment

Last Thursday, a coalition of content owners and ISPs announced the creation of a Center for Copyright Information (CCI) and a framework for “Copyright Alerts.” Briefly, the Copyright Alert system identifies a six-level system of interventions that ISPs should take with subscribers if they receive evidence of suspected copyright infringement.  They start with simple “educational” messages, move to messages that require user acknowledgement, and culminate in “Mitigation Measures” that could include bandwidth reduction (throttling) or account termination. The CCI analogizes the Copyright Alert system to credit card fraud alerts.  It positions the framework as a starting point towards a set of best practices for how ISPs should deal with online infringement.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign about this development is that several organizations representing indie content creators have either signed onto the initiative or issued statements endorsing it, including the Independent Film & Television Alliance, American Association of Independent Music, and Future of Music Coalition.  In other words, this is not just the MPAA and/or RIAA. Another good sign for the future is that the announcement has received relatively tepid reactions from entities that one would expect to sound alarms.  I can summarize the substantive concerns that have been raised by putting them in a few buckets:

  1. This initiative may sound inoffensive, but it’s really a foot in the door; future versions of the Copyright Alert system will become more draconian.
  2. All the language on the Center for Copyright Information website that says “This is not ‘Three Strikes'” is disingenuous: ISPs do have the option to terminate users’ accounts if they are still accused of copyright infringement after a suitable number of warnings.
  3. The system is based on accusations from copyright owners, not from any sort of objective source, thereby laying the system open to false positives and other abuses.
  4. There is an issue with presumption of innocence: you can appeal your accusation of infringement to the CCI, but it could cost you $35 to do so; there does not seem to be any redress mechanism for entities that file egregious complaints.

As is often the case, I think Nate Anderson of Ars Technica got it right: the Copyright Alert system does seem sensible, though it would have been easier to swallow if it had been introduced several years ago, instead of after several years of more drastic actions such as lawsuits against individuals and attempts at blunt-instrument legislation (and blunter-instrument levy schemes).

Fear of worse things to come based on worse things that already came explains #1 and #2 above.  ISPs have always reserved the right to terminate a subscriber for breach of their Terms of Service anyway.

As for #3, what are the alternatives?  ISPs can’t be relied on to self-police.  Copyright owners have to produce their own evidence of infringement.  The only other possibility would be the government, perhaps through the FBI or some newly created entity.

First of all, this is not supposed to be about law enforcement and criminal charges.  Secondly, a fundamental premise of this type of arrangement between industries is to avoid governmental intrusion — and it was most likely created in the first place because the White House and then-New York Attorney General (now Governor) Andrew Cuomo threatened government intervention if the two factions couldn’t reach agreement by themselves.  Finally, involvement of some government entity would raise concerns about taxpayer funding, which would be tantamount to the deeply misguided antipiracy levy that was proposed in the UK in early 2009.

I have to admit some sympathy for #4, though, once again, this is not law enforcement.  The reason for charging the $35 fee is supposedly to discourage people from abusing the system (i.e. overworking the Copyright Information Center) by bombarding it with cycles of illegal upload, appeal, illegal upload, appeal, etc.  If the point is to prevent scalable abuse, then a Captcha system on the appeal form ought to suffice.  But if the real reason is to foist the cost of this mechanism onto consumers, then once again, that’s wrong — and this is a particularly poor way to do it, given that at least some of the users who appeal will be innocent.

Yet otherwise, this ought to count as yet another of the many instances in modern life where you have to put up with inconvenience and cost to shake off a false accusation.  Anyone who has had a credit card charge refused because of the card company’s hair-trigger fraud detection mechanism, was issued a bogus parking ticket, or found mysterious long-duration calls to Eritrea on their phone bill, will understand — not sympathize, perhaps, but understand.  (Yes, all of those things have happened to me.)

What the Copyright Alert system is not is an opportunity for providers of technology to detect infringement on networks, such as content identification (watermarking and fingerprinting) or traffic monitoring, to sell more of their services.  Content owners will most likely continue to use the infringement detection services that they currently use.  The Copyright Alert system gives them a mechanism through ISPs to inform subscribers about allegedly infringing activities and potentially some actions to take against repeat offenders.

As to the question of whether five or six strikes can ever get you out — i.e., get your Internet access terminated — I suspect the answer is no for the foreseeable future.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation has described what’s likely to happen here.  ISPs will naturally object to cutting customers off from the products they’ve paid for.  The EFF suggests that content owners will believe that they have leverage against ISPs under the DMCA: they will argue that ISPs that refuse to cut off infringers should not enjoy the benefits of DMCA safe harbor (i.e. not being held secondarily liable for users’ infringement).  The issue may well end up in court.

In that case, there will be litigation over the meaning of the DMCA — not unlike the current long-running litigation between Viacom and YouTube — that would be destined for high level appeals courts.  In other words, a definitive answer to the question of “can ISPs get away with not terminating repeat infringers’ accounts?” will (barring any preliminary injunctions) be several years away, and until that day, the answer will be yes.

The Copyright Alert system is, at bottom, a cautious and reasonable experiment — one that, as many have argued, could have been launched ten years ago to better effect.  Many details have yet to be determined, as does the system’s effect on ISP subscribers and on copyright infringement.  It’s best thought of as a “watch this space” initiative, to put people on notice.  Any conclusions drawn about it are premature, and that’s how it should be.

2 comments

  1. Chris Brand · ·

    I think the real issue is the combination of 3 and 4 – there’s (apparently) no cost to making an accusation (accurate or not), but there is a cost to appeal it. Without some sort of penalty for false accusations, there is no incentive not to accuse first and worry about whether the accusation has any merit later.

  2. The lack of a penalty for falsely accusing innocent, 100% uninvolved bystanders is what aggravates me.

    We’re seeing DMCA notifications used against independent musicians, legitimate fair use cases, etc. because there is no really major risk in messing up an accusation.

    You generally only have to deal with parking authorities if you park in an area they control. This system will encompass the entire internet! It provides license to target absolutely anyone.

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