Industry cooperation takes another step in fighting online piracy

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The most pirated movie of 2015 — "Interstellar" — was illegally downloaded over 46 million times. Signaling that the problem is getting worse, this total was 55 percent more than the most pirated movie of 2014, "The Wolf of Wall Street." It is clear that more needs to be done to combat online piracy — by law enforcement, government, content creators and other players in the digital economy. Achieving consensus between all of these players is difficult, but a new voluntary agreement to combat online piracy shows that a win-win outcome is possible when private-sector stakeholders come together to protect intellectual property online.

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The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and Donuts, a domain name registry for new generic top-level domains, recently announced an agreement to help ensure that websites using domains registered with Donuts are not engaged in large-scale piracy. Donuts is a key partner in fighting online piracy, as it is an Internet domain name registry that administers some of the newest online naming options, such as .MOVIE, .THEATER, .COMPANY and almost 200 other new extensions. The websites for "The Hunger Games" movies (www.thehungergames.movie) and Alphabet (www.abc.xyz) show how these extensions open up new ways for online business and engagement.

The Donuts-MPAA agreement shows how private-sector stakeholders can come together to address online piracy and create a win-win scenario for all partners. For Donuts, the agreement protects its brand by ensuring that its domains are legitimate and law-abiding contributors to the digital environment. For MPAA, the agreement provides a clear path toward the removal of infringing sites and material, albeit with the responsibility to fulfill a number of clearly defined and detailed steps it has to make in presenting its case. The MPAA isn't interested in small-time players, only those websites which are involved in the large-scale piracy of full-length movies, especially films in pre-release or still in theaters. Each case requires human review. If the case checks all the boxes, Donuts has agreed to suspend, terminate or lock the domain name under the terms of acceptable use and anti-abuse policy.

The president of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) — the private organization that governs the Internet's domain name system — welcomed the agreement. Indeed he should, as ICANN's lax enforcement of domain name abuses has long been a sore spot. As the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) outlined during a congressional hearing, ICANN has a history of poorly enforcing its policies, and it has developed a pattern of putting its own interests ahead of those of the global Internet community, including not enforcing its own policies against domain name registrars that knowingly harbor or facilitate criminal activity. The MPAA-Donuts agreement sends a signal to ICANN about what a workable response mechanism should look like and creates an opening for it to do more to address online piracy.

The agreement also shows other sectors of the Internet economy that industry-led agreements can complement government efforts to improve online intellectual property enforcement. This is the latest piece in a growing puzzle of voluntary industry-led agreements that together tackle the issue of online piracy from different angles. The Copyright Alert System involves content creators and major Internet service providers working together to improve user awareness and education about copyright infringement. The Trust Accountability Group's Brand Integrity Program Against Piracy brings together digital advisers to ensure that piracy sites do not benefit from the placement of digital ads for major brands. If more registries, search engines, payment processors and other Internet players see the value in such cooperation, they can pursue similar initiatives to improve the health of the overall digital economy.

The usual pro-piracy activists have criticized the deal as they equate efforts to fight online piracy with censorship. It's not like these groups would support a different type of industry agreement, as they think intellectual property laws, which exist across the economy in the real world, somehow shouldn't exist or be enforced online. They would be opposed to any attempt by Congress, the courts, ICANN or anyone else that tries to reduce piracy online. Such an extreme ideological view certainly doesn't lead to them playing a constructive role in the debate about how Internet stakeholders can better work together to provide a safer, more stable and more prosperous digital economy.

In contrast, this agreement should provide food for thought for the various reviews of intellectual property enforcement currently underway in the United States, especially the 2016-2019 Joint Strategic Plan on Intellectual Property being developed by the U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator. This is an idea worth stealing.

Castro is vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a think tank focusing on the intersection of technological innovation and public policy. Cory is a trade policy analyst at ITIF. Follow them on Twitter @CastroTech and @NigelCory, respectively.