BY MIKE MASNICK
As we’ve noted many times in the past, the entertainment industry likes to take a multi-pronged approach to its quixotic efforts to “stop piracy” (which could be much better dealt with by simply giving the public more of what they want). Working on federal copyright law to continually expand it is one main strategy, but there are a lot of others as well, including pressuring private companies to voluntarily censor content, getting international trade agreements to force laws to change and… getting random state laws to force through big changes quietly. This last strategy has come into focus lately, especially with the rise of so-called “true origin” bills, that are almost certainly unconstitutional, but are rapidly popping up in a variety of states. This is actually a replay of an old strategy. I remember similar “true origin” efforts being pushed about a decade ago, and I’d thought they’d completely died out… but they’re back.
The way they work is pretty simple: they outlaw anonymity on the internet if your website distributes any kind of audiovisual work. The point of this is twofold: one, for those who “register” and reveal their name and address, it makes it easier for the RIAAs and MPAAs of the world to sue a site for copyright infringement. And, for those who don’t reveal their names, the RIAA and MPAA can ask the states to prosecute the site owners for failing to reveal their names.
A few weeks ago, we wrote about Florida’s proposed law, which would require any website that hosts audio or video to reveal their name and address. This could have disastrous consequences for whistleblowers or anonymous critics. In the US, the Supreme Court has long recognized the importance of protecting anonymity as a part of the First Amendment, but this bill does away with that completely, just because the movie and music industries think it’s necessary to stop piracy (even though it won’t do that). Unfortunately, it appears that despite widespread criticism, the Florida bill is expected to move forward this week. If you happen to live in Florida, the EFF has set up a tool to help you alert your elected representatives to why such a bill is a terrible and unconstitutional idea.
But… it’s not just Florida. One year ago, Tennessee enacted a similar bill, called the “True Origin of Goods Act” which is nearly identical to the Florida bill. And just last month, here in California, Assemblymember Ian Calderon (who has positioned himself as friendly to technology) introduced a similar bill. The California bill is at least somewhat more limited than the others in that it appears to focus mostly on physical copies that are offered for “sale” or “rental” — but it at least raises questions about anonymity rights, and opens the door to future adjustments to “match” this law to internet displays of content.
The efforts here are all basically the same: quietly use state laws to undermine anonymity in an effort to help the RIAAs and MPAAs of the world try to track down the owners of websites they don’t like. Whether or not you agree with that idea, the fact that to accomplish that (somewhat pointless) goal would undermine basic First Amendment concepts like anonymity and the ability to speak freely, doesn’t seem to be of much concern to the supporters of these bills.
It’s the same old story we’ve seen before with SOPA and other bills: the copyright industry doesn’t seem to care in the slightest about collateral damage from its quixotic effort to stop piracy, rather than to provide the public with better offerings. And, of course, copyright is supposed to be an issue for federal law, not state law, and these efforts are ways that the copyright industry is trying to backdoor in systems to undermine free speech in yet another weak attempt to accomplish a singular and pointless goal.