By Mike Masnick
The federal government seems to have a real blindness for the fact that companies given government-granted monopoly privileges in the form of trademarks, copyrights and patents might seek to abuse those rights beyond what is reasonably allowed. Instead, they seem to assume that private companies will always properly limit any efforts to use those laws against true violators. Of course, we know that’s not true, and that such monopoly holders regularly abuse the laws to block or shut down competitive activity or activity that the IP holder just doesn’t like. And yet, the government continues to ignore that this happens. Last year, the White House put forth a bunch of suggested changes to IP law, some of which showed up in SOPA.
One of the ones that didn’t show up in SOPA has now made its way into a new legislative proposal, H.R. 4216: Foreign Counterfeit Prevention Act, introduced by Reps. Ted Poe and Steve Chabot. The text of the bill seems simple enough. It changes 18 USC 1905, which currently forbids federal officials from revealing to private parties’ information that they come across during investigations. The new bill seeks to make an exception to that: allowing Homeland Security/Customs & Border Patrol agents to share pre-seizure info or products with trademark and copyright holders.
Now, on its face, this might make sense. It’s a way for CBP officials to ask copyright and trademark holders if their rights are being abused by potentially infringing products. But, as we noted when the White House first asked for this law, this hasn’t always worked out so well in the past, in part because copyright and trademark holders are often not particularly truthful when asked if they infringe — and they rarely, if ever, give any thought to fair use or other legitimate uses of their copyrights and trademarks. In fact, one of the reasons why the federal government screwed up so badly in seizing Dajaz1 was because it relied on bad claims by the RIAA, who insisted that works that were not infringing were infringing. Organizations like the RIAA have little incentive to get these things right. And this bill encourages greater coordination with those private parties?
The simple fact is that infringement is determined not by the copyright or trademark holder, but through a court process and adversarial hearing. Having Homeland Security sharing more info with private companies seems like a situation that is ripe for abuse. We’ve already seen how Homeland Security sometimes appears to act as the the private police force of certain private companies. Are we sure that we really want to create a situation that encourages more such activities?