Film industry lauds Web crackdown on copyright law violators

The motion picture industry praised Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Wednesday for seizing Web domains linked to online piracy.

“Operation In Our Sites has not only put illegal sites out of business, but has raised public awareness about this specific form of crime on the Internet,” wrote a group of film industry stakeholders including the Motion Picture Association of America, the Screen Actors Guild and the major film studios.

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“Most importantly, these enforcement efforts have resulted in most of these entities ceasing their illegal activity.”

The Obama administration has made online copyright enforcement a priority in recent months, tasking ICE with shutting down domains that repeatedly link to pirated movies, music and webcasts of live sporting events.

The groups argue the digital theft is particularly troublesome because ordinary users are often unaware that they are downloading pirated content or do so willfully. 

“Movies and TV programs, some of the biggest draws on the Internet, are in many ways the ‘canary in the coal mine.’ Stealing and illegally selling this content may appear to be victimless crimes or a harmless form of theft, but they are neither,” the letter states. 

“If it is not made clear that this kind of activity is illegal, it has the potential to become the harbinger of even more forms of illegal activity on the Internet.”

The groups also endorsed White House Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator Victoria Espinel’s first annual report to Congress, which she released last month.

Espinel recommended lawmakers significantly increase the penalties for online piracy and counterfeiting and clarify that streaming copyrighted materials online is a felony. She argued the current, shorter prison sentences for intellectual property violations have made piracy an attractive venture for organized-crime groups.

The White House requested that Congress give ICE and the Department of Homeland Security further authority to enforce copyright laws, such as giving law enforcement wiretap authority in copyright cases.

The Computer and Communications Industry Association, which counts Google and Facebook among its members, argued the White House’s recommendations go too far and threaten the public’s civil rights. They were particularly concerned about expanding wiretapping laws to include copyright infringements.

Espinel also expressed support for paying musicians royalties in addition to songwriters, which she called an “issue of basic fairness.” She said the so-called “performance right” would bring the U.S. in line with most other nations that already follow the practice. 

The National Association of Broadcasters has strongly opposed what it refers to as a “performance tax” on radio stations.