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Aistars: Rogue Websites Stifling American Entrepreneurs

As a first-generation American, I know something of entrepreneurship. The daughter and granddaughter of artists and authors, I saw firsthand the unique dedication and hard work that are part and parcel of earning a livelihood through artistic enterprises. Those qualities are reflected by creative entrepreneurs in every community across America, whether they employ one, 10, 100, or many thousands of individuals.

Dawn Thompson, who overcame a debilitating accident to become an award-winning romance writer in Long Island, N.Y., despite being a paraplegic, was an entrepreneur. As are the founders of Brentwood Benson Music Publishing, a Christian music publisher which put down roots in Nashville 100 years ago, employing more than 60 people. Bruce Iglauer’s love of the blues prompted him to start an independent music label in Chicago at the age of 23, which he still operates 40 years later. Their vision and hard work is illustrative of millions like them in all 50 states.

Yet at a time when our government is debating how to dig out of a jobless recovery, theft of American intellectual property by websites based overseas is crushing these businesses and rendering their work economically meaningless. These sites are transferring billions of dollars away from workers and businesses such as these — and the communities in which they live — to criminal website operators out of reach of U.S. law enforcement.

Books by Thompson, who passed away in 2008, are still widely read — downloaded as many as 4,800 times from a single offshore site. Yet not a penny is going to the disabled sister Dawn hoped would be cared for from ongoing royalties. Brentwood Benson has downsized to 20 employees in large part because of lost royalties due to digital theft. And Iglauer’s Alligator Records is doing less than half the business it was doing in 1999.

Rogue sites such as MediaFire and Megaupload, which rank 62nd and 67th in the world for the number of visits, dwarf legal American businesses such as Netflix (96th), Hulu (271st) and Pandora (346th) and virtually eliminate the ability of an individual artist to monetize their work either through direct sales or free give-aways supported by online ad revenue on their personal sites.

The breadth of the problem and its potential victims is reflected in the roll call of businesses and consumer safety organizations supporting efforts to fix it. 1-800-Petmeds, Ford Motor Co., and more than 350 other businesses have sent letters to Congress, as have groups such as the Better Business Bureau, the Fraternal Order of Police and 42 state attorneys general.

The bipartisan Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act, introduced in the Senate and House respectively, offer a narrow, focused and reasonable approach to addressing this problem. These bills modernize U.S. intellectual property enforcement by giving law enforcement and private parties tools to crack down on offshore rogue websites dedicated to theft of U.S. intellectual property.

The cries from those whose economic interests are served by promoting free access to copyrighted works have a familiar ring to previous deliberations about copyright enforcement online. These claims are unfounded.

• The bills cite and are rooted in current domestic copyright, trademark and seizure law, and hence will neither extend the obligations of domestic companies nor require new legal analysis by companies and investors.

• SOPA in particular includes additional protections to ensure sites are not exposed to litigation by private parties before a consultation and dispute resolution process, and the bill includes strict penalties for frivolous claims.

• Noted constitutional scholar Floyd Abrams has described the due process protections in the bills as “strong, uniform and Constitutionally rooted,” and has described arguments that the bills would harm free expression or the operation of the Internet as “unfounded.”

• The bills leave ultimate flexibility to technologists in how best to implement any court ordered measures — limiting requirements to those that are technologically reasonable, and ensuring that neither ISPs nor search engines will be required to modify their technology in order to comply.

• Filtering technology that could be used against rogue sites is in widespread use today to protect subscribers from phishing attacks and other malicious activity, without harm to the stability of the Internet.

The Internet should be preserved as a tool of communication, connection and legal commerce, not allowed to devolve into a lawless free-for-all that stifles American entrepreneurship, transfers American income to criminals’ pockets and puts American consumers at risk. Reasonable measures to keep it lawful and safe are critical to jobs, communities and our future economy.

Sandra Aistars is executive director of the Copyright Alliance.

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