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ONLINE PIRACY WAR HEATS UP

Posted in Cyberspace Law, Web/Tech

By Zachary Wadlé

In my last column of 2011 I wrote about the proposed “Stop Online Piracy Act” (“SOPA”) introduced in the United States Congress to provide the government with enhanced, but highly controversial, tools to fight online copyright infringement. As I noted, SOPA “spawned a fierce public relations and lobbying battle between Silicon Valley and Hollywood that will play out in the media and in the halls of Congress in the months to come.” Despite the spotty record of my predictive powers, these words turned out to be prescient. The debate over SOPA has blown up in recent weeks, culminating with Wikipedia’s (and many other well-known internet sites) decision to black out their website on January 19, 2012. Google got in on the act too by “censoring” the Google logo on its homepage, (but still allowing use of its search engine and all other Google web services).

The online blackout led by Wikipedia had an immediate effect. The next day, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, postponed critical votes on SOPA (and its companion Senate Bill – the “Protect Intellectual Property Act” or “PIPA”). Rumors swirled that Reid did not have the necessary 60 votes in the Senate to move the legislation past a key procedural hurdle, and Smith said, “I have heard from the critics and I take seriously their concerns regarding proposed legislation to address the problem of online piracy.” For now, the legislation is tabled for further negotiation and re-drafting in light of the substantial criticism from internet heavyweights.

But that was just the beginning of the flurry of activity related to online piracy. On January 20, 2011 the U.S. Department of Justice announced the shutdown of a major file-sharing website,”Megaupload.com,” and the indictment of seven individuals and two companies alleged to be responsible for operating it. The indictment says those who ran Megaupload.com are part of a “Mega Conspiracy, a worldwide criminal organization whose members engaged in criminal copyright infringement and money laundering on a massive scale.” According to the indictment Megaupload.com generated more than $175 million in criminal proceeds by distributing millions of copies of copyrighted works, including movies, television programs, music, books, video games and computer software. Although Megaupload.com is based in Hong Kong, the indictment was filed in the Eastern District of Virginia, where some leased servers related to the Megaload.com operation are located. From an email statement of the Department of Justice: "This action is among the largest criminal copyright cases ever brought by the United States and directly targets the misuse of a public content storage and distribution site to commit and facilitate intellectual property crime.”

About an hour after the indictments were unsealed, the public websites of the Justice Department, the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America would not load properly. The hacker-activist group known as “Anonymous” claimed responsibility for the disruptions, citing the U.S. government’s indictment of Megaupload.com, according to Twitter accounts used to publicize the Anonymous’ activities. The sites were disabled by a “directed denial of service attack,” which artificially floods websites with so much traffic that they temporarily crash. According to the Justice Department investigations are ongoing as to the cause and exact perpetrators of the webpage disruptions.

The Megaupload.com indictment comes at a somewhat odd time given the uproar in the online community over SOPA. Detractors of SOPA are sure to point out that the U.S. Justice Department had no problem investigating and filing one of the biggest criminal copyright infringement cases in history against Megaupload.com under existing law, suggesting there is no need for the enhanced legal tools under SOPA they argue would strangle the Internet. Supporters of SOPA are bound to point to the Megaupload.com indictment as an example of the huge ongoing problem of illicit copyright infringement throughout the Internet that must be stopped through additional legal intervention. All that can be said for certain is that the saga of SOPA and efforts to craft an acceptable legal framework to combat online copyright infringement will continue in the months to come.