U.K. Ends Plan to Block File-sharing Websites

LONDON — A move designed to protect the intellectual property rights of content owners against illegal file-sharing websites has been derailed by the British government.

Business secretary Vince Cable claims that the Digital Economy Act, which sought to reign in piracy, is not sufficient to address the situation in its current form — noting that there are several other steps currently being developed that may prove more effective.

Among the implications of the move is that consumers will be allowed to copy their music CDs to digital formats, for playback on an iPod, for example. “Parody” rights are also protected, as is a scheme to offer a copyright clearinghouse for rights acquisitions.

“This brings the law into line with, frankly, common sense,” Cable stated, adding that “A lot of this has to do with consumer freedom. We need to have a legal framework that supports consumer use rather than treat it as regrettable. We can’t say that businesses should embrace technology but say to consumers they can’t use technology for products they have paid for.”

The secretary does, however, acknowledge the need for more to be done to combat organized piracy and illegal file sharing.

“Music and film-makers have to be able to take effective and justified measures,” Cable concluded. “The basic philosophy is we do recognize the need for protection, but it has to be protection that's proportionate to needs and based on evidence.”

Communications minister Ed Vaizey, citing an Ofcom report on the efficacy of website-blocking legislation, agrees that the process is too complicated and failure prone to implement using current technology, but leaves open the possibility of future efforts.

“We haven’t said no to site blocking per se, forever,” Vaizey stated, pointing to the recent high court ruling forcing BT to sever customer’s access to Newzbin2, a piracy site, as an indication of interim steps that can be taken by rights holders in the meantime — although going the legal route does have its disadvantages.

For example, transient websites that may only be live for a few days are particularly difficult to pursue through the courts.

“One of the things that are frustrating for rights holders is the length of time it takes for a court process,” Vaizey stated, hinting at his plan to expedite the legal process while cutting legal costs. “One of the things I’ve enabled is conversations between ISPs and rights holders … to see if ISPs and rights holders can come to agree [on] a process to get facts together before going to court. The key point is [that this enables the] court to make a [quick] decision.”

The question of serial piracy was also addressed, as ministers retained the right to kill the websites of repeat offenders, despite being required under the Digital Economy Act to consider other penalties before disconnecting an offending site. Online pirates are slated to begin receiving official warning letters in 2012 — which can then be contested for a minimal £20 processing fee — refundable if the site is found innocent of content theft.

While the move may be seen by some as a setback in the fight against file sharing, continued initiatives, including the commissioning of a new Ofcom report to establish piracy benchmarking data as an indication of the problem’s overall scope, illustrate the seriousness with which lawmakers are addressing the issue, both in the U.S. and abroad.