House panel wants to fix online piracy 'Whac-A-Mole'

Lawmakers are looking for ways to fix the country’s “Whac-A-Mole” copyright system.

During a Thursday hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, members said they want to find a solution for copyright holders who must repeatedly ask Internet companies like Google to take down infringing content online.

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“Victims of theft but have to fight tooth and nail to protect their property” from online piracy, Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) said.

Under current copyright law, Internet platforms are not held liable for copyright infringement committed by users as long as they have policies that prohibit infringement and take actions to remove infringing content when notified.

Members on both sides of the aisle drilled down Thursday on how the current system affects small and independent creators.

Maria Schneider, music composer and member of the musician trade group The Recording Academy, told members that small and independent copyright holders spend too much time and money monitoring the Internet for infringing copies of their content.

Uploading infringing content is easy, she said, pointing to “all the hoops I must jump through to take it down.”

House Judiciary Committee ranking member John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said he wants to focus on independent creators. “Those are the ones I’m mostly concerned with because the big corporations are going to usually take care of themselves,” he said.

Members of the subcommittee urged the tech companies and content creators to work together to avoid government intervention in the online space.

“I’m really one that does not want the federal government to get involved,” Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), said, urging online companies to “ramp this up a little bit.”

The industry should be able to come up with technical solutions to the problems associated with online piracy, he said. “We can put a man on the moon. We can transplant a heart.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the subcommittee’s new ranking member after former Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) left Congress earlier this year, wondered if Internet companies could use technology to keep infringing content from being put online once it has already been taken down.

“Is the technology available ... so that the moment that something that has already been taken down gets posted ... it automatically gets taken down,” he asked. “Is that practical?”

Google’s senior copyright policy counsel Katherine Oyama pushed back on that idea. “I think Congress got it right when it created the DMCA [Digital Millennium Copyright Act], they didn’t impose these types of pre-filtering, pre-monitoring,” she said.

Current protections for Internet platforms prevent companies like Google from having to monitor and possibly censor content before users post it and allows for legal uses of copyrighted work, she said.

Oyama also pointed to a difference in technical capabilities among the thousands of Internet companies that would be subjected to that kind of filtering requirement.

It’s “not practical as a technical mandate on all providers,” she said.

Other members pushed for Google to do more to combat online piracy.

Chu, holding up her iPad, asked Oyama why searching for popular movies such as "12 Years a Slave" or "Frozen" prompts Google to suggest adding the word “free” to search terms.

Chu and other members of the subcommittee applauded Google for changing its search algorithm in recent years to demote search results that lead to websites hosting infringing content.

Chu said the move was “such a positive step,” but that “there seems to be no real improvement in this algorithm change.”

Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) urged Google to change its autocomplete feature to stop suggesting that users search for “free” versions of copyrighted content online.

“You’re pushing them to this space, even if they didn’t want to go there,” he said.

Oyama said the company ultimately wants legitimate and legal search results to come out at the top, but “we cannot strike the word free from search,” she said, pointing to artists who use the Internet to spread their free work in the hopes of gaining popularity.

Google does work with content creators to remove troubling search results and suggestions, Oyama said. 

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) pushed back against the pressure on Google and encouraged small and independent creators to find ways to easier license their copyrighted materials.

He pointed to the “dramatic drop” in online piracy of music that came from simple, inexpensive options for legal music, such as iTunes and Spotify.

Other copyright holders should “come up with a way to make it easier for innovators ... to license your content,” he said to Schneider. 

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