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Verizon's new role as copyright enforcer

CNet's News.com reported today that Verizon Communications, one of the country's largest providers of broadband Internet access, has started cutting off the accounts of people accused of repeatedly infringing copyrights. The company says it doesn't monitor what its customers are doing on their DSL or fiber-optic connections; it leaves the job of detecting infringements to the MPAA, RIAA and other copyright holders. Instead, when it receives a notice from a copyright holder about an alleged infringement linked to one of its lines, it sends a notice to the account holder identifying the work(s) at issue and warning, "You are legally responsible for all activity originating from your account."

A Verizon spokeswoman told News.com that few accounts have been terminated as a result of repeated accusations of infringement. A single warning letter has been enough to stop the complaints about the vast majority of lines, she said. And that's a good thing -- it's hard to defend garden-variety file-sharing, particularly when there's plenty of authorized content available free online. Verizon also insists that it doesn't tell copyright holders the names of the people it sends warning letters to, in keeping with its privacy policies.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of things that trouble me about what Verizon is doing. I'm not a lawyer, but I don't believe it's true that broadband account holders are "legally responsible for all activity" on their lines. And neither does Fred von Lohmann, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation who's active on copyright issues. 

"What they might mean to say is we, Verizon, are going to hold you responsible," von Lohmann said. But the courts have stopped well short of that, von Lohmann said. For example, he noted cases where judges have refused to hold account holders liable for infringements done by their children. In fact, in at least one case a judge ordered the RIAA to pay the attorney fees for a parent it tried to hold indirectly liable for an offspring's file-sharing. 

That brings me to a second sticking point. As much as I like the idea of warning accused infringers, it's simply impossible to know who, exactly, is sitting at the keyboard when a broadband account is being used to download a bootlegged copy of "Sherlock Holmes." So before an ISP cuts off an account holder who's drawn multiple complaints from copyright owners, I think there should be a persuasive showing that a) the complaints are valid, b) the subscriber was aware of the complaints and could do something to address them, and c) the subscriber unreasonably refused to do so. 

Verizon's experience shows that most people stop blatantly infringing (by themselves or their kids) when they're caught in the act. And once an ISP starts sending out notices to suspected infringers, it doesn't make sense to shrug off those who ignore the warning letters. But given the uncertainty about who's actually responsible, it seems draconian to cut off account holders without giving them something approaching due process.

-- Jon Healey


Comments () | Archives (3)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Jim Stevens

There's only so much the ISPs can do before the backlash kills them...wrong move if you ask me...but there are solutions out there...and the ISP/RIAA/MPAA can't thouch you or harrass you if you play your cards right.

Just encrypt your traffic or get something like ZapShares from CNet's download site...completely free of charge...the program automatically removes downloaded files from being shared/seeded...if the RIAA/MPAA do a search and find you're not sharing files...no probs on the end of the ISP...if they can't find you're sharing...they can't sue you or kick you off!

Like I said, there are solutions out there...you just have to find them...then you don't have to worry...download all you want...

Jon Healey

@Jim -- And that would be the right thing to do because ... ?

Bobbi Henson

This is Bobbi Henson at Verizon with some clarification on the CNET story.

We have had a copyright notice and education program in place for some time now and communicated it to our customers and the public on our Web site back in April 2009. This is not an automatic ‘three strikes’ graduated response program. This program has been effective in reducing instances of repeat notices and has not resulted in the termination of any Verizon customer’s service. The intent of the program is to educate customers and give them every opportunity to take action to address notices from content owners that their Internet connection may have been used to download or share content in violation of copyright laws. Our goal is to protect our customers’ privacy and due process rights while recognizing the importance of copyright protection and acquiring content legally. We believe our program strikes a reasonable approach and is working very well.



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The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.

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