EU Court of Justice Ruling – A New Chapter?

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This week, the Court of Justice of the European Union concluded what any rational observer would conclude about websites that make large volumes of unlicensed copyrighted works available to the public — that their owners know exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.  A Netherlands-based foundation that protects copyright interests argued in the nation’s Supreme Court that two ISPs could be ordered to block access to The Pirate Bay.  That court referred the case to the EU Court of Justice for interpretation under the EU Copyright Directive.

Among the long-standing defenses employed by pirate site owners attempting to thread their operations through statutory imperfection, is the claim that they do not upload infringing copies of works to their servers. Their users upload the files.  Even if you’re the most pro-piracy individual in the world, there is nothing about that kind of reasoning that should pass the smell test, and now the EU has wrinkled its nose and declared that making works available in the manner that The Pirate Bay does “may constitute an infringement of copyright.” A decision published two days ago states the following:

“Whilst it accepts that the works in question are placed online by the users, the Court highlights the fact that the operators of the platform play an essential role in making those works available. In that context, the Court notes that the operators of the platform index the torrent files so that the works to which those files refer can be easily located and downloaded by users. ‘The Pirate Bay’ also offers — in addition to a search engine — categories based on the type of the works, their genre or their popularity. Furthermore, the operators delete obsolete or faulty torrent files and actively filter some content.”

If it walks, talks, and looks like an infringing enterprise, it’s probably an infringing enterprise.  Further, the EU Court decision offers a statement that may have considerable ramifications for site owners who have consistently sought to appeal to safe harbor provisions, based on the assumption that they are ignorant about what users do on their platforms.

“… it is clear from the Hoge Raad’s [Supreme Court of the Netherlands] decision that the operators of ‘The Pirate Bay’ cannot be unaware that this platform provides access to works published without the consent of the rightholders. [sic]”

Not only does this have implications for sites like TPB that are dedicated to piracy, but also to service providers and search engines that provide access to those sites as well as legal platforms that earn “unintentional” revenue from infringement. Most prominently, of course, I’m referring to YouTube, which has unquestionably profited from hosting unlicensed material while remaining shielded by safe harbors. The EU Court’s rational conclusion that site owners cannot be nearly so deaf, dumb, and blind as they claim, may prove to be a major threshold moment for counter-piracy efforts around the world.

In fact, the day before that decision was published, a new global initiative was announced by 30 major content creators, including old names like MGM and new names like Hulu.  The Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment (ACE) calls itself a “new global coalition dedicated to protecting the dynamic legal market for creative content and reducing online piracy.”

Stressing the importance of legal frameworks to foster the growth and maintenance of new platforms for accessing a diverse range of filmed entertainment, the Alliance states in its press release that it will “conduct research, work closely with law enforcement to curtail illegal pirate enterprises, file civil litigation, forge cooperative relationships with existing national content protection organizations, and pursue voluntary agreements with responsible parties across the internet ecosystem.”

While piracy advocates continue to claim (and not without precedent) that they will always find a way to keep infringing, 2017 may prove to be the year when we start to see much better cooperation among major rights holders and the major online platforms. It has certainly been the year when many parties (e.g. advertisers) have finally rejected the traditional claim by the internet industry that the web operates best as a self-governing universe.  And it seems that many users are coming to realize that platforms are already governed plenty by their owners in the service of their own financial interests.

Not Just About Piracy

Google and other platforms have strongly resisted demoting, removing, or de-indexing links to content that is defamatory, illegal, or otherwise harmful—even when courts have ordered companies to do so. “Digital rights” organizations have consistently taken what can be described as a maximalist position in blindly defending liability shields in both the DMCA and the CDA—even to the extent that the EFF apparently saw no reason for exception in the face of evidence that Backpage.com may have been supporting the trafficking of minors in the sex trade.

As levels of violence and extremism continue to grow, both American and European leaders have already indicated a desire to make online platforms more responsible for policing their sites; and this pendulum can absolutely swing too far in the wrong direction. As technologist Jaron Lanier warned this week on NPR, we do not want to give private corporations like Google too much power to “police” the web because they are not subject to oversight as government agencies are.  This is a much larger topic for future posts, but at the same time, it is known that enterprise-scale piracy intersects with other forms of criminal activity—particularly the malware trade.

Historically, whenever trends like those we’re seeing this year begin to write a new narrative, government turns to the industry in question with an ultimatum—that they can clean up their own act or Congress will do it for them. Given the present chaos in Washington, including specifically at the Department of Justice, predicting where exactly U.S. policy on countering illegal online activity is heading is a murky prospect at best.  Nevertheless, this EU Court decision; the recent mood of major advertisers toward Google; this new ACE coalition; and a perceptible shift in sensibility among users who feel that platforms need to be more proactive to counter hate crime, harassment, and violence all suggest that the internet industry may be about to become better partners in addressing some of the negative effects their business models have created.

© 2017, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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