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The Copyright Gift Basket: What’s In It For You?

It’s that time of year again, when many of us are rushing from mall to mall (or site to site) to buy gifts for all those important people in our lives. A Wii for a few lucky ones, a Zune for the less fortunate, and a Ze Frank action figure for that burgeoning web video director. But we’re not the only ones getting ready to hand out presents.

Lawmakers from both parties just introduced an intellectual property bill that reads like it’s straight off the wish list of the entire entertainment industry. Also advancing in Congress is a controversial bill that aims to strengthen copyright enforcement at universities. And finally, there’s been a few gifts from the courts this week, as well. Google won against dirty picture publisher Perfect10, and the same company also suffered a defeat against Visa and other billing service providers. So what does all of this mean for you?

The PRO IP Act is an effort by top Democratic and Republican lawmakers to stiffen copyright penalties. Among the new provisions is the ability to seize and auction off any equipment used to facilitate infringement. P2P users could kiss their PCs goodbye if they ever were subject to a raid — and no, if the case gets dropped, they don’t get their stuff back.

This is the same kind of civil asset forfeiture used against people accused of running meth labs or other drug trafficking operations. Because, you know, that’s just as bad as uploading a movie.

The impact: Low, except for a few unlucky souls. The bill has major bipartisan support, but even if it does pass, it won’t stop anybody from downloading their favorite TV show.

The College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007 got a thumbs-up from the House Committee of Education and Labor a few weeks back and is now scheduled for debate. The bill is supposed to level the playing field for higher education by, amongst other things, regulating textbook prices. The 747-page bill also includes a passage that deals with copyright infringement on campus, forcing colleges to “develop a plan for offering alternatives to illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property as well as a plan to explore technology-based deterrents to prevent such illegal activity”.

Earlier versions of the bill followed a good cop, bad Santa approach: Colleges with naughty, BitTorrent-using students wouldn’t have gotten any federal aid. Politicians now insist that this isn’t the case anymore, but the EFF and Educause still oppose the bill.

The impact: High and troublesome. Colleges all over the country could be forced to block P2P traffic, making life much harder for legal P2P ventures and torrent-loving students alike.

Perfect 10 (NSFW) has been fighting with Google, Amazon and other major online players for years. The company charged that search engines like Google violated copyright laws by including thumbnails of its soft-porn pictures into their image search index and that credit card companies like Visa enabled piracy by providing billing services to infringing web sites.

The company lost on both fronts in recent days: The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Google’s bare-breasted thumbnails are fair use, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to even consider punishing billing providers.

The impact: Unclear. The fair use defense plays a major role in wrongful YouTube takedown requests, but YouTube itself could still be in trouble because the Appeals Court only considered a case in which the “transformative use” benefits the public. In other words: Hosting and indexing tiny thumbnails of boobs is good for everyone, but hosting complete videos is a different issue altogether.

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