Australian Government Signals Online Piracy Crackdown

In a speech earlier today, Australia's Attorney-General George Brandis signaled a looming government crackdown on Internet piracy. In addition to a "three strikes" graduated response mechanism targeting Internet subscribers, Brandis indicated that ISPs could be forced to block websites that allow users to download or stream content without permission.

pirate-runningLike all countries under United States entertainment industry influence, for years Australia has struggled with the thorny issue of online piracy. The U.S. has pressured its trading partner for some time, through lobbying efforts and legal action initiated by outfits such as AFACT.

It’s fairly ironic then, that in the early moments of his speech to the Australian Digital Alliance forum in Canberra this morning, Attorney-General George Brandis cited the piracy difficulties encountered by Charles Dickens.

“One of Charles Dickens’s reasons for travelling to the United States …in 1842, was to advocate for copyright law reform. Dickens was acutely aware of how much money he was losing because his works were being pirated, at the time legally, under American copyright law which permitted publishers to reprint British books at will,” Brandis said, underlining his point that creators should be paid for their work.

Of course, times have changed, and in the 21st century the United States is now keen for all other countries to adopt a specific set of copyright-protecting legal mechanisms, even though it has yet to formally bake any of them into its own legal system. This morning Brandis gave clearest indication yet of what Australians have to look forward to.

“I believe in strong protections and enforcement mechanisms in support of Australia’s creative industries, but, as I indicated, I am also keen, as one of the achievements in the first – term of the Abbott Government, to modernize, reform and contemporize the Copyright Act,” Brandis said.

First up, Section 101 of the Act, which states that an entity which authorizes the copyright infringing activities of others can be held liable for those infringements. The famous Hollywood vs iiNet case, in which the studios tried and failed to hold the ISP liable for the infringements of its subscribers, showed that the law couldn’t be stretched as far as the studios would’ve liked. According to Brandis though, things will change.

“The government will be considering possible mechanisms to provide a ‘legal incentive’ for an Internet service provider to cooperate with copyright owners in preventing infringement on their systems and networks,” he said.

“This may include looking carefully at the merits of a scheme whereby ISPs are required to issue graduated warnings to consumers who are using websites to facilitate piracy.”

While Hollywood successfully implemented its “six strikes” system in the United States, none of that was forced upon ISPs by law. And here’s another US ideal (that hasn’t been implemented locally) that the Aussies appear keen to take on board – site blocking.

“Another option that some stakeholders have raised with me is to provide the Federal Court with explicit powers to provide for third party injunctions against ISPs, which will ultimately require ISPs to ‘take down’ websites hosting infringing content,” Brandis said.

But while the Attorney General referred to legal options for three strikes, disconnections and website blocking, he noted that his preference “would be to facilitate industry self-regulation, as opposed to active and continuing government regulation.”

That, however, hasn’t worked to date, with discussions between Hollywood and the ISPs failing to reach any workable agreement, with the former wanting the reluctant latter to pick up the bill for enforcement.

While it remains to be seen whether change is arrived at through voluntary agreement or legislation, the Australian government keen to deal with the online piracy issue once and for all, despite the effectiveness of three strikes and site blocking regimes being continually called into doubt.

Photo: Dan Zen

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