Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

19
Jun
17

The Slants Case – What it Means for Sexually-Explicit Trademarks

On June 19, 2017, SCOTUS decided Matal v. Tam, which could open the floodgates for registration of previously-rejected, sexually-explicit trademarks.  The Tam case dealt with the attempt to register THE SLANTS as a trademark with the USPTO.  The USPTO rejected the application, so Tam sued on behalf of his Asian band, which had co-opted and embraced the derogatory term.  The case worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decisively ruled that the First Amendment will not give way to political correctness. Accordingly, the USPTO must register THE SLANTS.

Many in the adult entertainment industry have been awaiting this decision, which could finally force the USPTO to begin accepting registrations for sexually-charged brand names including explicit or profane words.  For decades, any effort to seek a trademark registration containing an immoral or offensive term would be routinely rejected by the USPTO under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, which prohibits such registrations.  That means, any brand names that include words like “Fuck” or “Cock” or “Pussy” would be routinely denied – particularly when the association with adult products or services was obvious.

For years, the adult entertainment industry accepted this fate, and used mainstream, non-offensive brand names for its products and services when it wanted to obtain trademark protection.  However, as the Tam case worked its way up the courts, far-sighted industry executives started to realize that the long-standing prohibition on immoral and scandalous trademarks may be on the verge of collapse.  Thus, a search of the USPTO database shows dozens of applications for brand names that include the words “Fuck” and/or “Pussy.”  However, most of them were submitted only within the last year or so, and almost all remain in the pending stage.  The USPTO decided to put a hold on any applications that include immoral or scandalous words, until the litigation played out.  Well, that litigation is finally playing out.  The same reasoning that led SCOTUS to conclude that disparaging trademarks cannot be refused, should ultimately lead the USPTO, or other courts, to the same conclusion with regard to immoral/scandalous marks.  All these prohibitions are bound up in the same Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, and all constitute viewpoint-based or content-based discrimination against the applicant. After the decision in Tam, the First Amendment cannot abide such discrimination.

The question is: How long will this take? The USPTO could potentially decide any time to give up the fight, and allow immoral / scandalous applications to proceed.  Given Tam, it will have to start processing “disparaging” applications in the very near future.  USPTO attorneys have already acknowledged that the same arguments supporting registration of disparaging marks apply to immoral/scandalous marks.  As they should.  Continued defense of this censorship scheme is frivolous, and a waste of federal dollars – not to mention a violation of the First Amendment.  If the USPTO does not rectify this error on its own, the case of In Re Brunetti, pending in the Federal Circuit, will hopefully be the death knell for the prohibition on immoral/scandalous marks. That case will directly address whether immoral/scandalous marks may be prohibited, however it has been sitting on hold pending the decision in Tam. Now that SCOTUS has laid down the law, the Federal Circuit is clear to render a (hopefully) similar ruling, shutting down one of the longest running censorship rackets in U.S. history.

The marketplace of ideas will not crumble if some company decides to use a “dirty word” in their trademarked brand.  Consumers will either accept or reject their products or services.  That is how the marketplace is designed.  For years, the USPTO artificially put its thumb on the scale of morality, and decided which brands it liked, and which it did not.  The day is coming where trademark owners will no longer be corralled into a homogeneous, milquetoast pit of the mundane. Instead, the gates of creativity may soon be opened, where businessmen can decide for themselves whether their brand name should be salty or sweet.

For those interested in exploring new boundaries, the USPTO is open for business. It will accept applications for sexually-explicit trademarks, but will put the applications on hold until it decides whether to give up the ghost in this fight for expressive rights.  The decision not only benefits adult entertainment companies or adult website operators, but was important to the Washington Redskins NFL Football team.  The USPTO sought to cancel the “Redskins” trademark since the name was allegedly disparaging to Native Americans. The team’s owner said he was “thrilled” with the Supreme Court’s decision.

 

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08
Jun
17

Don’t Lose Your Designated DMCA Agent

On December 1, 2016, the U.S. Copyright Office went live with its new DMCA Agent database, and revamped the procedures for designating an agent for receipt of copyright infringement notices. For any reader who does not know about the benefits of designating a DMCA Agent, or which sites should take advantage of this procedure, the author’s previous article covering those topics can be found here: http://www.firstamendment.com/dmca-agent/. This article focuses on the recent changes to the procedures and the consequences of failing to comply with the new requirements for designating a DMCA Agent.

First, and most importantly, all website operators or online service providers (“Service Providers”) who might want to claim DMCA safe harbor defenses relating to user-generated content must designate a DMCA Agent using the new automated filing system (“New System”) by December 31, 2017. This includes anyone who has already designated a DMCA Agent in the old, manual filing system (“Old System”) which ceased accepting new filings as of December 1, 2016. Failure to designate an agent in the New System by the deadline (even if you already filed a Designation in the Old System) means your business is left without a DMCA Agent, and without any legal basis for claiming safe harbor protection in response to a copyright infringement claim. Instructions about how to use the New System, and the phasing out of the Old System, can be found here: https://www.copyright.gov/dmca-directory/

Why are they doing this? Supposedly, it comes down to efficiency and accuracy of the database records. The new automated, online agent designation system is superior to the Old System, since submission of the DMCA Agent information to the Copyright Office, and payment of the fee, now take place electronically – and rather quickly. Requiring updated information and renewals will keep the information contained in the Designations more current and accurate – more about that later.

With the Old System, anyone seeking to designate an agent would need to fill out a .pdf form containing all the contact information and associated domain names, which would be sent to the Copyright Office – along with a paper check – and then scanned into the database by a human being who would then manually associate the Service Provider’s corporate name with any and all domains, mobile applications, or other “alternative names” used by the Service Provider in business. That information would be uploaded into an antiquated database with limited search capabilities.

Filing a Designation in the Old System would often take weeks, and the online database was littered with errors given its reliance on human data input. Domains would often be misspelled, overlooked, and/or duplicated. Each posting would need to be carefully reviewed by the Service Provider (or its attorney) for quality control, and errors would often take weeks (or months) to fix. In fairness to the governmental employee previously responsible for overseeing the Old System, she was given a virtually impossible task, with outdated technology and minimal support staff. That person is no longer with the U.S. Copyright Office, and given the automated nature of the New System, it appears that no individual will be responsible for overseeing it.

The Old System was actually being phased out months before the New System went online in December, 2016. Widespread reports have indicated that Designations of Agent sent to the U.S. Copyright Office in the months leading up to the launch of the New System have been uniformly ignored, and not posted in any database. Notably, the filing fee checks were cashed by the government, but many Designations have not been processed or posted online. This may result in some dramatic consequences for any Service Providers who believe they have submitted valid Designations during this ‘doughnut hole’ between the end of the Old System, and the launch of the New System. If you recently filed a Designation in the Old System database, but it does not appear in this database: https://www.copyright.gov/onlinesp/list/a_agents.html, it may be gone for good. The best solution is to immediately file a fresh Designation in the New System, and confirm that the information is posted here; https://dmca.copyright.gov/osp/search.html?key=exposedonth.net&action=search. Any Designation submitted to the Old System will become invalid anyway, as of December 31, 2017, so a new Designation submitted in the automated system will be required by the end of the year for all Service Providers. Instead of wasting time trying to track down the status of a Designation filed in the Old System, simply file one in the New System and move on.

The one piece of good news in all of this chaos is that the filing fee for submitting Designations has gone down from a minimum fee of $135 to a flat fee of $6. That’s a substantial drop, but reflects the lack of any real human involvement in the process. The bad news is that Designations are no longer permanent like they were in the Old System. Again, all Old System Designations will expire on December 31, 2017. All New System Designations must be renewed every 3 years by filing a renewed Designation. If you amend a Designation on file in the New System, the 3 year renewal period starts over. Apparently, the U.S. Copyright Office will send out reminders of any impending renewal deadline to the email address of record, but separate calendaring of this filing deadline by the Service Provider (or its attorney) is highly recommended. It is difficult to predict how the system will work in 3 years.

One other change in the procedures is the requirement that Service Providers submit a telephone number and email address when submitting a Designation. Previously, that information was not required. Notably, the telephone number and email address will not be posted in the database, but will be maintained in the internal records of the Copyright Office.
Some practical problems are bound to arise from this transition. As noted above, some Service Providers will understandably believe that they have a current Designation on file, but that Designation may never be posted if it was submitted in the latter part of 2016. Individuals trying to locate a Service Provider’s DMCA Agent may not understand the obligation to check two independent DMCA Agent databases – either of which could have relevant information about a Service Provider’s agent. Some Service Providers will have conflicting Designations filed in each database directory. Filing a Designation in the New System may not override or cancel out the Designations filed in the Old System. Some websites may have more than one Service Provider associated with them, according to one or the other databases. Some domains may be overlooked and not included in the new Designations, and will thus lose any safe harbor protection.

Ultimately, the confusion and inconsistencies will be corrected due to the passage of time, and the elimination of the Old System at the end of 2017. For now, it is essential for Service Providers to carefully review their Designations for accuracy and continued validity. Multiple calendaring systems should be implemented to ensure that renewal Designations are filed on a timely basis. Given the importance of correctly filing and maintaining a DMCA Agent Designation, many Service Providers chose to have an attorney act as their DMCA Agent, and oversee the process. While filing the Designation of Agent in the New System is not rocket science, attorneys tend to be meticulous with filing procedures and deadlines. Moreover, since a website’s DMCA contact form or email address is often used by third parties for a wide variety of legal notices, claims, subpoenas, search warrants, and preservation notices, a licensed attorney will be able to quickly escalate any non-routine legal correspondence, and ensure timely compliance with legal obligations. Regardless of your choice of DMCA Agent, it is essential to remain up to date on the changing legal requirements for filing and renewal of DMCA Agent Designations with the U.S. Copyright Office.

29
Dec
15

Close Up the Internet and Repeal the First Amendment

You know elections are upon us when politicians start talking about wanting to “close up” the Internet, or censor Twitter and Facebook.  Throw in a couple terrorist attacks and you have the perfect storm for loss of cherished First Amendment rights.

Donald Trump’s suggestion that America should consider “closing up the Internet in some way to fight Islamic State terrorists in cyberspace” illustrates the danger lurking around the corner for any disfavored speech.  In the early days of the Internet, the U.S. government took the lead in attempting to censor ‘indecent’ online communications, by passing the “Communications Decency Act (“CDA”).” Deemed the “Great Internet Sex Panic of 1995,” politicians in that time saw adult websites as a threat to the foundations of society, so they attempted to “close up” that part of the Internet.  What remains of the CDA is now often cited as a protection of free speech (i.e., “Section 230”), but the bulk of the legislation, which prohibited indecent Internet content, was struck down by a unanimous Supreme Court in 1997.  The Court could spot that blatant censorship attempt a mile away.

Now the Senate is considering legislation that would force social media companies to monitor posts, and report any “terrorist activity” to the government.  Sen. Diane Feinstein did some investigating and found that while sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter take down content in response to valid abuse reports, they do not proactively monitor their networks, or report suspected violations to the government. “I think they should,” she said at a recent Judiciary Committee hearing.  Of course, the entire legal premise on which most online service providers operate is that they are not required to monitor the content of third party posts, or scour their networks for references to potentially unlawful activity.  Imposing that kind of burden could easily bring Internet traffic to a screeching halt, given the manpower, expense, and legal risks associated with operating an online service under those conditions.

However, the government has been busy laying the groundwork for imposing the burden of monitoring and censoring online speech in numerous ways; beginning with the startling life sentence handed down against the operator of SilkRoad.com, the passage of the SAVE Act, the criminal prosecution of escort advertising networks, and the intimidation of credit card processors associated with Backpage.com (later found to be unconstitutional). Each of these actions represents an attempt to hold an online service provider responsible for third party posts or advertisements.

Some of those calling for the proverbial heads of social network operators for permitting uncensored use of their networks rely on a provision of the USA Patriot Act, which prohibits anyone from providing “material support” to a terrorist organization.  If this action is prohibited, how can Twitter get away with providing a network for distribution of jihadist propaganda? Or so the argument goes. Despite Supreme Court Justices expressing some “grave concerns” with the constitutionality of that prohibition under the First Amendment, the law was upheld in 2010.  Thus began the gradual chipping away at what used to be a clear prohibition on criminalizing political speech.

Others who are upset with an open marketplace of ideas cite to legal obligations imposed on Internet service providers to remove and report child pornography, or take down reportedly infringing material under the DMCA, as evidence the government already has the tools it needs to create a valid, online censorship regime. Each of these instances can be distinguished from the wholesale prohibition of online communications envisioned by those desperate to find a quick fix for the complicated threat of terrorism facing today’s world populace.  Child pornography falls into one of the rare, historically unprotected categories of speech, given its unique, horrific nature – and the fact that it records the criminal act of child abuse.  DMCA takedowns do not involve censoring speech by the government, but the civil enforcement of intellectual property rights by copyright holders.  The targeted material may still be protected by the First Amendment, but owned by someone with superior rights to control its distribution. Mixing all these potential ‘options’ into a big, convoluted soup encourages the talking heads and politicians to conclude that there “must be a way” to close up the Internet, and keep us safe.

Renowned enemy of the First Amendment, Eric Posner, uses the threat posed by ISIS to promote “new thinking about the limits on freedom of speech.”  His latest attack on one of civilization’s most sacred values proposes a law that would criminalize access to websites that glorify or provide encouragement for ISIS.  Aside from the fact that true jihadists would likely use encrypted communications to evade detection, and investigators would lose the ability to monitor and track threatening communications, censorship never works and often backfires.  Typically such laws call more attention to the censored speech or inadvertently silence opposition views as well. History proves that the cure for bad speech is more speech, not censorship.  While recent calls to clamp down on free speech rights have been effectively mocked by civil libertarians, the proposals are becoming too frequent for comfort. Should one of these proposals gain traction, be prepared for a demand to block some type of erotic speech that a legislator decides is too extreme for his or her tastes. That’s exactly what happened when Iraq started blocking terrorist’s speech earlier this year – the ban on pornography soon followed.

In any other time, the author would conclude this article with a calming observation that the First Amendment protects offensive and even hateful speech, and that would be the end of it. The calls for censorship would eventually be quelled by cooler heads that were well-grounded in constitutional restraint on governmental power.  But we live in a time when Yale University students are perfectly willing to sign a petition to repeal their First Amendment rights (including the right to petition). We also exist in a world of trigger warnings, safe spaces, and abundant micro-aggressions, where university professors call for some “muscle” to kick journalists out of public protests.

The First Amendment was once held sacred – particularly when it came to online communications.  The Internet was everyone’s soap box, where the speaker didn’t need big media money to get a message out. The courts acted quickly to strike down laws that conflicted with free expression rights. However, in a time when 34% of poll respondents say the First Amendment goes too far, and the same percentage have no idea what rights the First Amendment protects, the bedrock principles that have formed the basic protections for online speech are on shaky ground.  Let’s hope they survive another election cycle.

17
Oct
14

Sex, Lies, & Sex Tapes

Sex, drugs & rock ‘n roll. That used to be the unofficial motto of Hollywood. And it worked. For years, the so-called scandals of celebrities in public were enough to keep tabloid headlines fresh, interesting and attractive to readers. Now though, it’s 2014: we’ve seen it all and it is no longer enough to simply report on what celebrities are doing in the public eye. A new unofficial motto has taken hold of those that fancy themselves the gatekeepers of celebrity information: sex, more sex, and leaked private media.

In recent times, not only have there been a rash of leaked photos from consumer-driven websites like 4chan, we’ve also lately seen stories of big name production labels, such as Vivid, considering the release of celebrity sex tapes. Rapper Iggy Azalea is at the center of the most recent controversy, with reports that a former boyfriend is shopping around a sex tape involving the entertainer to various media outlets including Vivid Entertainment.

Images or videos released to the public which were not originally meant for public consumption bring with them a wide variety of legal issues and pitfalls. That being said, there are four main issues in this realm which should be noted for anyone considering publishing this increasingly popular category of material.

Copyright: Initially, the person who created the media presumptively owns the copyright in the media. Sounds simple enough, right? Not exactly. This clear principle can quickly be made muddy, given the way we all create copyrightable “original works of authorship” these days. For example, consider the famous case of the Ellen DeGeneres Oscar Selfie. DeGeneres licensed use of the now widely known photograph to the Associated Press. But did she own the rights to license? It is unclear. DeGeneres is the one who got all the famous stars together, posed them, and set the scene for the photo. However, she was not the one to click the shutter button on the phone: Bradley Cooper was. The traditional presumption is that the photographer – meaning, very literally, the one who clicked the shutter button – owns the copyright and can distribute it.  Additional confusion arises when the photographer is acting at the specific request of another – particularly without a ‘work for hire’ agreement. Within the rash of leaked celebrity photos on 4chan, this principle would mean that the copyright in each of the selfies was owned by the celebrity who took the picture, providing that individual with a strong intellectual property case to go after anyone who published the images. Conversely, however, in the case of Iggy Azalea, if her former boyfriend shot the video, he would have a good argument as to ownership of the copyright in that case. That’s not the only consideration for leaked media, however…

Publicity/Privacy/Commercial Exploitation: Even if Azalea’s former boyfriend properly owns the copyright, Azalea, as the subject of the video, also maintains rights to control the publication of her personal depiction in the video. A model or subject depicted in media has a right to profit from the display of their ‘image and likeness.’ This is usually called the right of publicity; or sometimes, the right to commercial exploitation, and is separate from the copyright. If the recording was done in secret, there may be privacy rights at play as well. All of these rights would typically need to be waived by execution of a model release. If not, then the individual depicted in the video retains the rights, and can sue for violation of those rights. Naturally, with celebrity sex tapes, there typically is no model release signed before the ‘performance.’

Section 2257 Records: The elephant in the room regarding celebrity sex tapes is compliance with 18 U.S.C. § 2257.  As virtually all producers of erotic material know, Section 2257 imposes an obligation to review and compile certain performer identity and age documents prior to filming and/or publication. If those records were not created beforehand (which rarely, if ever, happens with a private sex tape or leaked content), the content is presumptively illegal to publish in the absence of accompanying records. The original producer must keep the original records, and all secondary producers (including webmaster) must keep copies of the records, along with generating their own records, such as the URL’s associated with the person depicted in the video. A notice of where the records are kept must be associated with the video, in the manner required by the statute and regulations.

Publication Risks: What happens if you publish a sex tape without 2257 records? The answer may depend on your role in the publication process. The original producer of the material, and the person responsible for initially uploading or publishing the material on a website, are clearly responsible for any non-compliance, which can include a multi-year prison sentence. So how are all these images being published on the Internet, presumably without 2257 records or model releases? Often, the content is uploaded by an anonymous customer of a ‘user generated content site’ such as a tube site, or posting forum like 4chan. The operator of the site will assert a Section 2257 exemption, designed to protect hosts and social networking sites from liability, and excuse their compliance with 2257 records maintenance obligations. The validity of the exemption depends on whether the site operator was actually involved with soliciting the sex tape upload; or in some cases, actually posting the content. If that activity can be uncovered, the site would almost certainly fail in asserting any attempted 2257 exemption. If the posting was done through a legitimate, unsolicited third party user upload, the site may be off the hook for 2257 compliance. Once the content appears online – somewhere – as user generated content, other ‘indexing sites’ link to it, categorize it and reproduce it, on a multitude of other sites; which ultimately display and drive traffic to the user-uploaded file. Section 230 immunity and DMCA safe harbor typically protect the tube sites and indexing sites from monetary liability for violation of publicity rights, privacy rights and copyrights, with respect to legitimate user uploaded or indexed content. All of this anticipates that the individuals depicted in the videos were over 18 years old when the content was created. If not, none of the exemptions, immunities or safe harbor protections will help the publishers with regard to child pornography allegations. Failure to report such content, once being made aware as website operator, is also a violation of federal law; Section 2258A.

Publishing sex tapes and leaked celebrity content is risky business, particularly in the absence of Section 2257 records or model releases. Celebrities have money and power…and lawyers. They can afford to enforce their rights, and may have enough influence to get law enforcement interested in pursuing criminal investigations. While some online service providers may be able to rely on federal law to skirt liability for the publications, any involvement in soliciting, posting or producing this category of erotic content generates significant legal risks.

Larry Walters has been advocating for the rights of the adult entertainment industry for over 20 years, and has defended numerous high profile obscenity cases for adult website operators. He operates Walters Law Group (www.FirstAmendment.com) which focuses on Internet law, First Amendment issues and intellectual property.

22
Aug
14

Viewing Rights – The Constitutional Right to View Erotic Material

What are your constitutional rights when it comes to viewing pornographic, violent or controversial material in your own home? This is a question we frequently address as First Amendment attorneys, and on which there is still some confusion in the minds of consumers.  Is there a right to view or possess pornography?  What about obscenity?  The answer to both of these questions, under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Right of Privacy, is indisputably yes.

Stanley v. Georgia was a U.S. Supreme Court case in which the home of Robert Stanley, a Georgia resident, was searched by police. Stanley was previously convicted of bookmaking, and was suspected of conducting such nefarious activities again. Police had a warrant to search his home for bookmaking paraphernalia, and instead, found pornographic material in a drawer. Under Georgia law, it was a crime to possess obscene materials. Stanley was charged and convicted, and the conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court of Georgia.

That was not the end of the Stanley’s story, however. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction, and in the process made clear that all state laws criminalizing the mere possession of obscenity were invalid. In doing so, the Supreme Court noted that there is also a fundamental “right to be free, except in very limited circumstances, from unwanted governmental intrusions into one’s privacy.”  Regarding the notion that the State of Georgia could control the contents of an individual’s personal home library, the Court said this was “wholly inconsistent with the philosophy of the First Amendment.”

Out of Stanley comes the legal principle that individuals are free to possess and view pornography, even if that material is considered obscene, in their own homes. Stanley placed no specific restrictions on the content or subject matter of the materials. Individuals are free to possess extreme erotic material in their own homes, and may additionally view whatever fetish or subject area they wish.

This right is not absolute, however. The right to view pornography comes with one important limitation: the prohibition against even mere possession of underage material. In Osborne v. Ohio, the U.S. Supreme Court held that states’ prohibitions on the mere possession of child pornography are not inconsistent with the First Amendment and therefore, even private possession of child pornography is illegal. What constitutes possession, however, varies by state. Some states have court rulings or statutes saying that viewing without downloading constitutes possession, while other states require active downloading onto the hard drive to meet the possession threshold. Under federal law, “receipt” of child pornography via the internet or other interstate transmission is prohibited as well, thus triggering potential federal penalties for these acts.

Importantly for advertisers and operators of adult websites, the U.S. Supreme Court has heldthat it is also illegal to promote something as containing underage materials even if it actually includes only adult performers, pursuant to federal “pandering” laws.  Importantly for viewers, anything that is suggested to be underage material may actually contain such material, so it would therefore be best not to access such materials at all. Additionally, “morphed” or “photoshopped” images, containing the bodies of adults but the heads or faces of minors, have been the subject of recent and conflicting court decisions.  Nonetheless, consumers are warned to avoid this content as well, given the potential risks.           

Aside from the possession of underage materials, what is legal to view in your own home is a large category and includes exceedingly controversial content; such as images of violence, animal cruelty, and even “virtual” underage images, videos, cartoons or drawings. For violent images, there is interestingly no limit to the amount of simulated or real violence that can be viewed, as obscenity laws only apply to sexually-oriented materials. Although extremely controversial or violent materials may be legal to view, one must make his or her own personal decision whether to support or endorse content depicting self-harm or individuals being exploited. Another important point for viewers to note is that downloading a video depicting a real crime of violence may place you in the position of possessing relevant evidence, and subsequently destroying such evidence may, itself, be a crime.

Excepting the possession of underage materials, as noted above, individuals are free to view and possess a wide variety of violent and erotic content in their own homes, without fear of criminal prosecution.  The First Amendment needs sufficient “breathing room” to survive, and part of that is tolerating the private possession of material that might be illegal in other contexts, like obscenity.   However, with the widespread use of smart phones to create a diverse amount of both erotic and violent material, substantial questions remain regarding the legality of “producing” images that might be perfectly legal to possess. 

Larry Walters has been on the forefront of defending the adult entertainment industry for over 20 years, and has defended numerous high profile obscenity cases for adult site webmasters. He operates Walters Law Group (www.FirstAmendment.com) which focuses on Internet law, First Amendment issues and intellectual property.

16
Jul
14

Censored by Google: What’s Next?

Google, a name most associated with the popular, gargantuan search engine, has been making its way into the headlines for a different and much more egregious reason: censorship across its platform of products.  The company recently made waves for prohibiting adult material on its advertising network, AdWords.  Now, it seems, Google has expanded its censorial policies and many are wondering just where the company will stop.

Xbiz.com founder and editor, Alec Helmy, called out the search giant for its hypocritical behavior; echoing the concerns of many in the adult industry.  In an open letter, Helmy wrote, “Your decision has left countless businesses in dismay, bewildered about why an ultra-progressive company that is so committed to ‘Freedom of Express’ would make such a decision.  These same companies also remain concerned about what the future may hold – specifically, whether you will also decide to place adult oriented websites at a decided disadvantage in organic search results.”

Through a spokesperson, Google claims its restrictive policies on adult advertisements are not new.  However, many familiar with Google and the adult industry do not agree.  Theo Sapoutzis, chairman and CEO of AVN Media Network, said he was surprised by the move: “I was one of the very first advertisers for AdWords back in 2002.  It’s something that’s been [untouched] for 12 years, so you don’t expect change is going to start happening.”

Tom Hymes, senior editor at AVN, agrees, noting that many in the adult industry have been abiding by Google’s rules for years and are now being abandoned by the search giant: “There are many people who say the biggest losers are the ones who play by the rules.  The winners are the huge properties with a lot of free content and frequent updates – the type of actions the Google algorithms really like.”  BaDoink CEO, Todd Gilder, added to the chorus with a scathing open letter to Google, noting: “When an organization as visionary, powerful and dominant as Google starts kowtowing to shrewd, faith-based special interest groups with federal lobbyists like Patrick A. Trueman at the helm, it’s a sad day for freedom and a sad day for IT.”

Now, Google is taking its censorship on advertisements a step further and directing business users to cover up “sexually explicit content” in the form of album covers.  The search giant has instructed music website Drowned in Sound (DiS) to pixelate, thereby censoring explicit cover art.  Sean Adams, founder of DiS said that “it seems crazy that they feel they can police our editorial.”  He also wondered just far Google would go with its censorship policies in the future.  Just recently, Google surprised many users when it removed several thousand links in an effort to comply with the EU’s “right to be forgotten” law.

Adams is certainly not alone in questioning the lengths and depths of the company’s censorship.  Many people, both in and out of the adult industry, are uncomfortable with Google’s recent decisions and wonder what will come next.  Attorney Michael Fattorosi stated, “This is another example of a mainstream company turning its back on the industry that has supported it.  The question now becomes: Will they block adult content from their search results?”

Google has also previously attempted to keep adult content out of other major products: developers are not permitted to share Google Glass apps with sexually explicit content and sexually explicit materials are banned from Chromecast.

Many are speculating that pressure from conservative groups caused Google’s policy changes regarding adult content.  Morality in Media, an ultra-conservative media activist group, claimed through a press release that Google’s policy changes came after a “productive meeting” between the two.  Google has refused to confirm the connection.  If accurate, this kowtowing to a family values group is a first for the search engine giant, which previously prided itself on commitment to free expression principles.

David Holmes, writing for Pando Daily, explains the greater problem of Google’s censorship and its impact beyond the adult industry.  Holmes writes:

You may despise pornography, but the specter of “family values” has often been used to attack anything that threatens traditional Christian morality, from homosexuality to books about wizards.  I doubt Google will ban Out Magazine or Harry Pottery anytime soon, but what about links to, say, a provocative work of art like Piss Christ?  Or ads for birth control?

As Holmes notes, the importance of tracking Google’s policy changes is not only for their impact on industries currently hurt by the new rules, but also their potential to censor information Google doesn’t agree with in the future.  Holmes colleague, Mark Ames, makes an important point: “Never in history has one corporation and one source had so much power over what we know and don’t know.”

Google’s power to filter the information received by the public is vast, and its ability censor disfavored speech, dangerous.  Most importantly, this is everyone’s issue, not the select few whom Google has decided to target today.    

12
Jun
14

DMCA Evolution: Forum Solicits Input on Possible Changes to Notice and Takedown Procedures

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s (DMCA) “notice and takedown” procedure and the attendant “safe harbor” protections afforded to service providers often spark controversy and debate. Originally designed as a way to balance the interests of copyright holders and online service providers, the DMCA’s 14 year history has demonstrated that well-intended laws can quickly become outdated and misused.  Often DMCA notices are sent by, or on behalf of, competitors seeking to damage another party’s business, or by those who do not understand basic “fair use” concepts.  On the other hand, DMCA safe harbor can be manipulated and invoked by parties that Congress never intended to protect from copyright infringement liability.

Change is in the air, however, at least for traditional DMCA notice and takedown procedures. Recently, the United States Patent and Trademark Office opened a public forum in pursuit of ideas for improving the notice and takedown process explicated by the DMCA. The forum was to be the first of a series of such, all geared towards the ultimate goal of increased efficiency, as well as continued protection for copyright holders, under the DMCA. The public discussion came after a green paper released in July 2013 by the Department of Commerce’s Internet Policy Task Force examined problems with the current notice and takedown process.

The purpose of the forum, according to Patrick Ross, a USPTO spokesman, was to solicit input to answer the questions raised by rights holders, service providers and the public at large, as addressed in the green paper.

The speakers were from a diverse cross-section of those affected by the DMCA: The Software Alliance, the Computer and Communications Industry Association, the Artists Rights Society, Google and many others.

One of the most common complaints from rights holders, according to the forum, is the inability of small and medium-sized artists or enterprises (SME’s) to keep up with infringement of their work. A proposed solution to this was the encouragement of collective representation for infringement research.

Additionally, one of the main and pressing topics examined at the forum was whether standardization of forms for the notice and takedown procedure would be helpful, both to rights holders and service providers. Overall, many of the participants believed that standard forms for notices seemed a good beginning, but certainly not a good end. The feeling at the forum was that there remained much work to be done. Several of the speakers, both service providers and rights holders, stressed the need to maintain balance in any solution designed to bring more efficiency to the DMCA, so that both sides would find value in the notice and takedown procedures.

Another possible solution discussed was creating “Trusted Submitter” programs, something Google has done, to more efficiently process DMCA notices. More diverse solutions were offered as well, such as the potential creation of a certification mark or badge for Internet search results, to alert consumers which pages were authorized or licensed sites for the particular intellectual property being searched for.

Given the large volume of notices received by most service providers, which often makes responding in a timely fashion difficult and costly, this is a great moment in time to examine better and more efficient methods of protecting copyrights online. The DMCA has been an important tool, for both rights holders and service providers alike, and may need to be updated to continue as such.

As discussed at the forum, it is important to keep in mind the balancing of interests that goes into any intellectual property issues on the Internet. Rights holders must be given a fair and easy way to prevent and police infringement, while online service providers must have an opportunity to efficiently and easily handle incoming notices.  Those who abuse the notice and takedown process must also be held accountable.