It has been an exceptionally busy week for copyright policy. We heard from all three branches of the US Federal Government in one way or another, while the citizens of the Internet flexed their muscles in response.
The most covered story of the week was the battle over SOPA and PIPA — the twin proposed bills that aimed to cut down on online piracy of copyrighted works by giving the government significant new authority to block access to allegedly infringing web sites. Other authors on this blog have pointed out how the bills show inconsistency in the copyright industry’s position on regulating the internet, could threaten free speech in repressive regimes, and may ultimately be found by the courts to violate fundamental constitutional liberties. On Wednesday some of the most popular sites on the web “went dark” or otherwise heightened awareness of the issue, and the surge citizen pleas to Congress caused a surprising reversal of momentum in the House and Senate. [Update: Both PIPA and SOPA have now been shelved.]
Buried in the day’s developments was the Judicial branch’s copyright contribution. In a highly anticipated decision, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Golan v. Holder. At issue was the question of whether or not Congress had the right to make a law that moved public domain works into copyright. Opponents of this law claimed that such a move violated not only the First Amendment, but also the purpose of the Copyright Clause — not to mention and age-old legal principles. The majority did not agree, and in a 6-2 vote it stated that individuals do not have any particular right that guarantees their use of the public domain, so they have no claim if Congress removes materials from it. Justices Breyer and Alito dissented, explaining that the ruling upset the delicate balance that the Founders had struck in affording limited monopoly rights to content creators. Nevertheless, the majority clearly demonstrated that the Judicial branch continues to trend toward greater expansion of copyright protection.
On Thursday, the Executive Branch weighed in. The Department of Justice announced that it had seized the domain name and servers of the popular file-sharing site Megaupload and had indicted several of the site’s operators. Although Megaupload claimed to be complying with US copyright law — in particular the notice-and-takedown provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act — the feds claimed that the operators knew full well that the majority of the content on the site was infringing. Within minutes of the announcement, hacktivist group Anonymous had launched a denial-of-service attack on the Department of Justice web site, which remained unreachable for hours [Update: days].
Opponents of SOPA and PIPA welcomed the opportunity to reflect on why these developments demonstrated the shortcomings of the proposed bills. Some of them noted that the DoJ’s actions were done without any additional authority from harmful new bills, while others observed that such approaches to enforcement are ultimately ineffective — they observed that it was only a matter of time until Megaupload returned, or the many other file-sharing sites filled their shoes. By Thursday night, all four GOP presidential candidates had come out against SOPA.
It is hard to consolidate all of these developments into a coherent story of where things are headed. However, a few things seem clear. First, the SOPA/PIPA backlash is shows us that the internet can help citizens to rally a truly remarkable effort that penetrates the beltway bubble. Second, internet freedom is a compelling and accessible counter-narrative to copyright maximalism and government policing. Third, the courts continue to favor an approach to copyright that emphasizes property rights of those who have already created works over the free speech rights of those who may rely on those works to create new works. Fourth, the enforcement arms of the government are interested in taking ever-more-extreme measures to take down those accused of infringement, and are committing more taxpayer resources to a problem that continues to grow despite their approach.
But perhaps most significantly, this week shows us that there is just plain turmoil in this area. Policymakers are struggling to find good answers, and sometimes their “solutions” provoke far more criticism than praise.