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The Copyright Alert System: A Private Solution to Digital Piracy

Harold Furchtgott-Roth

Washington is a city where the government seems to be the solution to every problem no matter how trivial or small. What is two plus the two? Let’s ask the government for the answer. When it comes to big problems, the government has answers as well.

The government solutions do not always work. Consider digital piracy, a problem of enormous magnitude, likely leading to losses of hundreds of billions of dollars to the American economy each year.

Some Americans think little or nothing of stealing digital property and using it for themselves or sharing it with others or even selling it to others. As the creative center of the world, America suffers most from digital piracy. Our creative artists lose opportunities to recognize the value of their efforts. American businesses and workers who depend on the creation, distribution, and development of related products and services suffer as well. Digital piracy impedes the American economy. Far from being a victimless crime, digital piracy impoverishes all Americans with a slower economy than we would enjoy otherwise, a poignant thought in an American economy that is shrinking.

Here in Washington, what is our government doing to solve digital piracy? The answer is the same as it has been for decades: very little. To be sure, our politicians will occasionally give a good talk and expound on the importance of creative artists to the American economy. But when it comes to backing up those words with action, our government is missing in action.

Some countries are intellectual property scofflaws with governments that harbor digital pirates if not activity engaged in the activity under the color of the government itself. How does our government respond? The same as it has for decades: a few good speeches, a good report, but little action. Taking intellectual property seriously is not uppermost on the minds of our diplomats.

Digital piracy here in the United States is big business and it is illegal. How does our government respond? The same as it has for decades: a few good speeches, a good report, but little action. Taking intellectual property seriously is not uppermost on the minds of our law enforcement officials.

Sadly, much of the digital piracy in America is done by young people. How do our schools respond? The same as they have for decades: largely ignoring the problem. The same schools that teach students to feel guilty for lawfully using energy or lawfully having certain viewpoints do little to make students feel equally guilty about illegal activities such as digital piracy. Better to steal a copyrighted work than to even imagine the carbon footprint from breathing.

So what have many private groups done to protect copyrights and other intellectual property from digital theft on the Internet? After waiting for decades for the federal government to take intellectual property rights seriously, these private groups have developed a solution here in Washington that does not involve the federal government. That’s right: protection of property rights without the help of government.

A private organization consisting of both intellectual property owners and distribution companies, the Center for Copyright Information has developed the “Copyright Alert System.” That system notifies Internet users in the United States of the likelihood of digital piracy activities on their Internet accounts. The Center for Copyright Information recently released its initial report on the Copyright Alert System. In 2013, the Copyright Alert System notified more than 722,000 Internet accounts of likely piracy activities.

These Internet users may as a result learn what they did not learn in school or from government law enforcement: digital piracy is wrong. Individuals whose Internet accounts are repeatedly engaged in digital piracy face arbitration.

The Center for Copyright Information is not a property rights advocacy group. It takes privacy rights and civil liberties just as seriously as, if not more seriously than, property rights. The staff and advisory board have backgrounds with such institutions as People for the American Way, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and the Future of Privacy Forum.

The Copyright Alert System by itself will not stop digital piracy, but it is a good start. It is a start based on the efforts of private groups with divergent views on a many topics. But the private groups have found common ground in understanding that digital piracy harms us all. And they have common ground in recognizing that waiting a few more decades for the federal government to solve the problem is no solution. And they have common ground in finding ways to enforce property rights without compromising privacy rights and civil liberties.

Ironically, the private groups chose to launch their property enforcement effort in the city that epitomizes a big government rather than a private solution to big problems: Washington, DC.

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