ICE Arrests Operator Of Seized Domain; Charges Him With Criminal Copyright Infringementby Mike Masnick, Techdirt
Mar. 06, 2011
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While Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) group has been seizing lots of domains under questionable legal theories, it has been slow to follow through on any sort of actual lawsuits. However, with one of the domains seized a month ago, channelsurfing.net, ICE has now arrested someone and charged him with criminal copyright infringement, such that he's now facing five years in jail (as well as fines). This is interesting, because when that domain was seized, we had noted that channelsurfing did not appear to host any content itself, but merely embedded content from other sites. That raises an awful lot of serious questions: specifically, what part of copyright law is infringed here. The site does not host any of the content. It does not make any copies. It does not distribute the content. All it does is put in a snippet of code that a user's web browser then uses to request content from another site.
About the only thing that could be claimed is some sort of "inducement" claim -- but as we discussed recently, there's simply no such thing as criminal contributory infringement, so if that's the claim, then it would appear that ICE (yet again) is simply making up what it wants the law to be, rather than what the law actually says. Now, there may be more to this than has been made clear to date. Perhaps there's evidence that the site actually did host content, but that was not clear from what I saw earlier. Some have said that there's an "aiding and abetting" charge to be made under criminal law, but as we pointed out in the link above, the standard for aiding and abetting are much, much higher, and there's little evidence that ICE has enough to meet the aiding and abetting standard.
On top of this, there are serious questions about why this should be a criminal claim, rather than a civil claim. ICE appears to be using the fact that the guy, Bryan McCarthy, made some money, from ads on the website, as the basis for the criminal charges. But that seems like a stretch (at best). While we still question why there should even be such a thing as criminal copyright infringement, even if we accept the idea that it does exist, isn't it supposed to be focused on those doing significant behavior where the connection between the infringement and the money making is clear and direct? Putting some ads on a website that earn a small amount of money (as is the case here) shouldn't be enough to trigger criminal infringement claims. Anyone can put ads on a website. That, alone, shouldn't shift liability from civil to criminal.
No matter what, this will represent a lawsuit worth watching. I'm always nervous that tough cases make bad law, and I could definitely see how certain aspects of this case could obscure the key issues. It will come as a surprise to no one that I'm greatly troubled by a criminal charge here, but it should worry almost anyone who has a website and has ever embedded videos. I have, for example, frequently embedded YouTube videos on this site -- and some of those videos might have been infringing. On top of that, I make some money from advertising on this site. Does that mean I now face criminal liability? I certainly hope not, but that seems to be the incredibly chilling message that ICE is sending. It immediately makes me question if I can ever embed another video without first getting explicit permission from the copyright holder.