For years, IP owners had the invisibility cloak thanks to anonymous websites, but a Florida bill under consideration may change all that. It’s been a major issue, especially for owners of audiovisual intellectual property who were victims of theft, piracy and unauthorized use when their content was online. Since IP owners were anonymous, there was no way for victims to find or accuse the alleged criminals. However, Florida is looking at a bill which may require anyone who “owns or operates a website or online service dealing in substantial part in the electronic dissemination of commercial recordings or audiovisual works, directly or indirectly, to consumers in this state” to readily make contact information of owners available.
The Senate Bill 604/House Bill 271, dubbed the True Origin of Digital Goods Act, will demand site owners to publish their “correct name, physical address, and a telephone number or email address” if passed. This will help move claims forward should copyright holders allege there’s been illegal or unauthorized use of property. The bill will also help with lawsuits or injunctive relief should the contact information be kept secret.
The Evolution of Anonymity
While the Bill may very well evolve over time, right now the “commercial recording or audiovisual work” owners are defined as anyone who is an “owner…agent, or licensee has disseminated or intends to disseminate”, however video games and streaming are excluded at this time. Otherwise, the Bill is quite broad and lets most alleged copyright holders to request court orders so that they can access the contact information of webpage or website owners.
Currently, web host providers and ISPs are not regulated by the bill. Thus, “website” as defined by the Bill isn’t inclusive of “a homepage or channel page for the user account of a person that is not the owner or operator of the website upon which such user homepage or channel page appears”. Websites such as Vimeo and YouTube are likely the reason for this exemption.
Under the current version of the bill, an owner, licensee of a work, authorized agent or assignee must provide a notice, wait 14 days, and can then file a private civil lawsuit. If a judgment is made, it’s proven that a website owner or operator chose not to provide personal contact information. At this point, a court of law can demand disclosure requirements and can “make appropriate orders to compel compliance with this section.” The party bringing the complaint forward may be entitled to “necessary expenses and reasonable attorney’s fees”.
There are a number of other exemptions, or “safe harbors”, included in the bill, mostly surrounding web hosting services under the Communications Decency Act. Another exemption is website material that is comprised of “excerpts consisting of less than substantially all of a recording or audiovisual work” as it likely falls under “fair usage”. Of course, there are also a number of critics of the bill, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) which has called the legislation a “dangerous anti-anonymity bill”. It’s been noted that other states with like laws have used it for police raids and non-legal communication restraints. It may also cause anonymous bloggers to publish their personal information which they’ve kept hidden to protect themselves while practicing freedom of speech.