House Judiciary Ponders Digital Distribution Future

The House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet discussed online piracy prevention at a Hill hearing Tuesday, and there was nary a peep about SOPA or PIPA, the anti-piracy legislation backed by studios that went nuclear and flamed out thanks to Silicon Valley pushback.

At the hearing, dubbed, "The Rise of Innovative Business Models: Content Delivery Methods in the Digital Age," the challenge of applying copyright laws that pre-dated the Web to digital goods delivered on multiple distribution platforms, including consumers, becoming part of that process was the principle topic of conversation.

There was little talk of legislation, with most witnesses emphasizing voluntary efforts and pointing out that increased legal content available at decreasing prices were all helping.

There were the same divisions between those who feared overprotection of copyright to the detriment of innovation and fair use and those who fear piracy abetted by search engines. But there were no fireworks.

John McCoskey, executive VP and CTO of the Motion Picture Association of America, said repeatedly that piracy continued to be a an evolving challenge, but also said that continuing to work and talk with all stakeholders in the ecosystem, rather than legislation, was the best way to address the problem. He pointed to the ISP-backed Copyright Alerting System, which provides a series of escalating warnings to surfers when they are accessing illegal content.

Subcommittee Chairman Howard Coble (R-N.C.) asked what was the best way to encourage folks to use legal content sites. McCoskey said it is not just creating those legal paths, but getting consumers to find them. In the past, that might have been an invitation to MPAA to lay into search engines given a recent study showing that search engines are a critical link between would-be infringers and pirate TV and movies sites, that was not the case.

Asked by one legislator about the problem of pirate sites showing up at the top of search engine results, McCoskey gave them the benefit of the doubt, making the point that the bad actors were not the search engines but the pirate sites. Without mentioning names, he did make the point that one search engine (Google's) efforts to modify its algorithm to demote those rogue sites had not produced the desired result, but he did not lay blame.

App developer from the Association for Competitive Technology Sebastian Holst said that algorithms can address "a moment in time," but that it is a "cat and mouse" game with bad actors who will say or do anything.

Amazon Global Public Policy VP Paul Misener asked the subcommittee to keep its eye on usage-based pricing to make sure it was not being used to limit consumer access to online video services, and said generally that ISPs have the incentive to discriminate against competing online video content.

Amazon supports limiting statutory damages in some cases of accessing illegal content involving individuals who may have made a mistake, as opposed to for-profit pirates. Misener said Amazon "abhors" piracy, since every stolen digital item is a lost sale.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.