(Not the Real Mickey)

Let’s say I make a bunch of pirated copies of a DVD movie, stick the discs in envelopes, and mail them to all my friends. Is the United States Postal Service responsible for the copyright violation? Of course not.

The post office is blind to my nefarious activities. It doesn’t know what’s in the envelopes or what’s on the discs. It is merely a carrier.

When a copyrighted image, video, or audio file goes onto a website hosted by a service provider, the host is effectively blind to it as well, at least until someone points it out or an internal review process picks it up. Even in the best case, there’s bound to be some period of time when the pirated content is unlawfully displayed or distributed.

So is Google at fault when its YouTube site hosts a video in violation of copyright?

Well, YouTube is hosting it. But the user posted it; YouTube didn’t.

The safe harbor provision of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) established a sensible compromise, requiring hosts or carriers to remove such content upon receipt of a takedown notice. But now the House and Senate are considering bills that would wipe out that compromise and potentially pull the rug out from under the World Wide Web as we know it. The bills would not just mandate policing of content but require the takedown of a site itself, not just the offending content found there.

The disturbing thing here – in addition to the prospect of the sites we rely on every day changing utterly or going bust – is that the battle over these bills is being fought not between representatives with opposing philosophies but between huge corporations with their attendant lobbyists. Even Rupert Murdoch has put in his two cents, according to the Huffington Post, “personally lobbying leaders on Capitol Hill…for [the] two measures that purport to combat piracy.”

This is just the kind of thing those pesky 99-percenters are talking about. Whether these bills pass will depend not on whether it’s good for us, the congresscritters’ constituents, and certainly not on what might be the actual right thing to do, but on which companies – the carriers like Google and AOL on one side, or the big content creators like the movie studios on the other – spend the most money and lobby the most effectively.

I happen to be on the carriers’ side in this debate. But so what? My opinion makes no difference at all. Neither does yours, citizen.