Lessig on the charges against Dotcom and Megaupload

kim dotcomThis morning, Kim Dotcom, accused by the Department of Justice of criminal copyright infringement, is in a New Zealand court to see if he will be extradited to the United States.

One of the things in Dotcom’s corner is testimony from Lawrence Lessig, a preeminent U.S. copyright scholar, and current presidential candidate. He argued to the court that the DOJ doesn’t have a legitimate case against Dotcom. Of course Lessig isn’t exactly a neutral party. As he acknowledged to the court, on top of being retained by Dotcom’s defense, he’s also advocated for copyright reform, co-founding Creative Commons.

But how’s his argument stack up? His first argument strikes at the heart of the DOJ’s theory, contending that the DOJ is improperly seeking to import the concept of secondary liability, recognized in MGM Studios Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd., to criminal law. This is “improper,” he contends, “because, in the United States, crimes must be clearly defined by the legislature and prosecutions are confined within express criminal statutes.” There is a fair argument to be made that this importing of principles from civil law violates the rule of lenity.

Lessig then takes aim at one specific allegation against Megaupload: that it failed to comply with DMCA take-down requests. Lessig explains that, if multiple users uploaded the same file, Megaupload would retain only one copy of the file, but would generate multiple URLs for each user who uploaded it. When Megaupload received take-down requests for one URL, Lessig argues, it should not have needed to take down all URLs linked to the same file, and even if it did, it should not face criminal liability for that action.

Lessig also takes on an even more controversial issue: whether U.S. copyright law extends to parties acting in other countries. Megaupload in fact had leased servers in the United States. But Lessig asserts that the Superseding Indictment doesn’t discuss this fact. Nor, he claims, does it allege that a directly infringing act occurred in this country.

Lessig then turns to what I believe is the core of Megaupload’s defense if it ultimately goes to trial in the United States: whether any of the defendants willfully violated copyright law. He notes that the willfulness standard “requires a stronger showing in a criminal copyright claim than in a civil claim.” (That is why claims of compliance with DMCA rules is a red herring in the Megaupload prosecution.) Lessig suggests that U.S. prosecutors are merely “[a]ttacking an ISP for generally bad or negligent policies or alleging how the ISP could be better, faster, or more precise in its takedown or repeat infringer policies is not enough.” And that, he contends, is not proper fodder for a criminal case.

Not all U.S. copyright scholar agree. James Grimmelman has observed that “If proven at trial, there’s easily enough in the indictment to prove criminal copyright infringement many times over.”

In a 2013 article, a co-author and I also suggested that, “if the facts alleged in the indictment are proved, the willfulness requirement will likely be met,” for the following reasons:

According to the indictment, the operators of Megaupload were just as intentional in their copyright infringement as The Pirate Bay, collecting advertising revenues generated by infringing content and exchanging incriminating emails showing that they knew about the infringement on their service. One operator joked to another that they “have a funny business . . . modern days pirates :),” to which his co-conspirator responded, “we’re not pirates, we’re just providing shipping services to pirates :).” Megaupload similarly sold premium access to unlimited streaming of uploaded content and financially rewarded users—even those previously caught uploading infringing material—for uploading popular content and for posting links to that same content on other websites. This practice not only increased traffic but also allowed Megaupload to avoid listing infringing videos directly on the site, concealing the scope of the infringing content on its servers. To rebut claims of infringement, Megaupload had instituted an “Abuse Tool,” allowing copyright holders to report, and purportedly remove, infringing content. But the indictment alleges that the company received millions of requests to remove infringing content and, “at best, only deleted the particular URL of which the copyright holder complained, and purposefully left the actual infringing copy of the copyrighted work on the Mega Conspiracy-controlled server and allowed access to the infringing work to continue.”

Lessig does a good job of showing the other side of these facts. But whether it is enough to defeat extradition is yet to be seen.

Also lurking in the background is the idea floated in the 2013 piece: just because prosecutors can, doesn’t mean they should.

Megaupload has not been convicted, and may never be, yet its business has been shut down, its assets frozen, its customers left unable to retrieve even lawfully stored data. Some of this smacks of the treatment of the King’s Messenger: punishment first, with trial after. … [W]hen the alleged conduct is egregious, and civil lawsuits are ineffective, then a criminal prosecution, with all its attendant hardships for the accused, may be warranted. But [those guidelines] are intended as limitations, not as a call to pursue more prosecutions. Because the powers of federal prosecutors are great, a reluctance to use those powers is a virtue that preserves liberty.

If the case survives today, then the court might consider employing the “substantial unoffending uses” test suggested here for evaluating the secondary criminal liability of providers of technology that has both criminal and non-criminal uses.

Update on Kim Dotcom Extradition

Kim Dotcom crowdThere’s been two significant developments this week in the ongoing effort to extradite Kim Dotcom (the CEO of the now-defunct Megaupload) from New Zealand to the United States to face criminal charges of copyright infringement. I’ve been following the proceedings since co-authoring Criminal Copyright Enforcement Against Filesharing Services, 15 North Carolina Journal of Law and Technology 101 (2013).

First, there is a development in regard to fallout from the January 2012 raid on Dotcom’s mansion conducted by New Zealand police, at the request of U.S. authorities.  Dotcom audaciously mocked the raid at the launch event for his new service “Mega” in January 2013 by staging “a raid re-enactment complete with helicopters marked ‘FBI,’ and dancing girls clad in military-style dress (but with miniskirts).”

Meanwhile, Dotcom has challenged the search warrant underlying the raid in New Zealand courts. This had some success. First, the Prime Minister apologized to Dotcom for the government spying on him. Then, in November 2013, a New Zealand High Court Judge ruled that the search warrants used in the raid were not proper because they were just “general warrants” and thus “did not adequately describe the offences to which they related.”

This week, however, Dotcom has faced a set back. On February 19, an appellate court issued a decision disagreeing with the High Court Judge’s analysis and concluding that the warrants were valid. You can read the appellate decision here.  Dotcom has vowed on Twitter to appeal to the New Zealand Supreme Court. But as noted by the Independent, “[t]he decision will benefit US prosecutors who say the Megaupload website has cost film studios and record companies more than $500 million (£300 million) and generated more than $175 million in criminal proceeds by letting users store and share copyrighted material, such as movies and TV shows.”

Second, the extradition hearing for Dotcom that was scheduled for April 2014 was delayed on February 25, with a new date yet to be set. It’s already been delayed before. The delay is probably meant to allow time for the proceedings about the search warrant to resolve. But Dotcom, in his standard provocative manner, has”accuse[d] the New Zealand government of interfering in the judicial process, to delay the hearings until after the country’s election, due in either October or November,” according to The Register.

Third, as a bonus, Dotcom gave an interview this week to Complex Tech in which he mouths off about the charges against him. He complains that Google has had many more takedown requests related to pirated links than Megaupload ever had, but yet is still in business. Of course, as my paper explains, Megaupload’s real problem wasn’t the number of takedown requests it received, it’s that prosecutors allege that the company either ignored those requests or helped facilitate the re-posting of pirated material.

Finally, Dotcom also mentions in the interview some sort of tripped-out new file service “called Meganet, which is basically kind of like a fluid ocean of data where whatever glass of water you dump into it you can never extract from it anymore, and you kind of just meet the water in the ocean somewhere.” We’ll see where that goes.

New article on criminal prosecution of filesharing services

kim dotcomAlong with a coauthor, I’ve written an article about criminal enforcement actions against filesharing services, including the ongoing prosecution of the operators of Megaupload. The article also touches on the actions against the Pirate Bay and NinjaVideo. This area of law is important in defining how the federal government protects creators of copyrighted content without stifling innovation. Yet many questions remain about the extent of criminal liability of these services as “secondary” infringers. You can download the article here (and if you do, please let us know what you think). The abstract is below:

The high-profile prosecution of the popular online storage website Megaupload for criminal copyright infringement is the latest in a series of recent criminal prosecutions of online filesharing services. But what pushes a legitimate online file-storing business over the edge to criminal enterprise? How might criminal copyright enforcement differ materially from civil enforcement?This article answers these questions and suggests guidelines for prosecutorial discretion. After a condensed history of criminal copyright law, we explain why “secondary” theories of infringement apply in the criminal, as well as civil, context and why the DMCA “safe harbor” defense is a red herring in criminal copyright actions. We then propose guidelines for prosecutors to consider before bringing a criminal enforcement action against filesharing services: Limiting prosecutions to theories of liability already established in civil case law, and targeting only those filesharing-service operators that openly defy civil enforcement actions.