Monday, November 16, 2009

Viacom's top lawyer: suing P2P users "felt like terrorism"; Ars Technica, 11/16/09

Nate Anderson, Ars Technica; Viacom's top lawyer: suing P2P users "felt like terrorism":

Michael Fricklas, Viacom's general counsel, tells a group of Yale Law students that he's a huge fan of fair use, doesn't want to take down your YouTube mashup, and has no plans to start suing P2P users in federal courts—but he still loves DRM and "three strikes" laws.

"Michael Fricklas is Viacom's general counsel, and it's his job to oversee the company's legal efforts, including its $1 billion lawsuit against YouTube. When people talk about Big Content, they're talking about people like Fricklas.

So it might be surprising to watch him tell a class of Yale law students this month that suing end users for online copyright infringement is "expensive, and it's painful, and it feels like bullying." While the recording industry was big on this approach for a while, Fricklas certainly understands the way it came across to the public when some college student went up against "very expensive lawyers and unlimited resources and it felt like terrorism."

Customers "need to be treated with respect," he added, and that respect extends even to DRM—much of which has been "really bad."...

Kinder, gentler, but still lovin' DRM
Part of the answer is that "Big Content" is of course a convenient fiction; every creator and company has a different outlook, is staffed by different individuals, and relies more or less heavily on exclusive rights under the Copyright Act.

Viacom, for instance, creates copyrighted works every day, but it's also a heavy "fair user." Consider The Daily Show, for instance, and think about just how much of its daily show relies on video footage from other organizations. Fricklas even showed a spoof movie poster that Viacom had done years ago—for which it was sued by famous photographer Annie Leibowitz—and with which it eventually prevailed in court, claiming parodic fair use...

While bashing the experience of many earlier DRM schemes, Fricklas is a firm believe in the basic concept, saying that it allows consumers to have experiences they could not have without DRM (or not at the same prices)...

Graduated response
Another area of tension between consumers and rightsholders is graduated response, sometimes referred to as "three-strikes" policies that sanction those accused of repeat copyright infringement online. While the content industries like to tout graduated response as a kinder, gentler way to handle these issues, the worldwide public hasn't been sold on the plan. The European Parliament voted several times to ban such schemes unless they had judicial oversight, while France's attempt at passing a graduated response law was defeated once in the legislature and once by the Constitutional Council before finally being passed. New Zealand had to scrap its three-strikes plan and start over after resistance from users and ISPs, and the UK is in the midst of a furious row over the idea. Graduated response has never been introduced in Congress, and no major ISP has agreed to adopt the approach voluntarily.

Still, Fricklas is big on the idea. It's definitely a saner solution to the issue than hauling college kids into federal court, and feature sanctions "more proportional to the harm." (This is certainly debatable when it comes to France-style disconnections and blacklists, however, especially on family accounts.)

And Fricklas wants to make sure that there are rights of appeal, since the process can sometimes be a bit too "guilty until proven innocent."

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