This week—just because I wanted to see what would happen—I impersonated a librarian at a rural public library that had recently received a “cease and desist” notice asking that the library pay a $250 fine because a user illegally downloaded a movie. The library received the notice from a “copyright troller.” Copyright trollers are companies whose sole purpose is to find alleged infringements on the Web for rights holders (like the motion picture industry). They can identify the IP address where an alleged infringing act took place, track down the holder of the IP address, and then send a scary legal notice asking for payment, or else—you will find yourself in court on an infringement charge! Because of the nature of this business, these companies have been stuck with the derogatory moniker “copyright trolls,” the repo men of the web.
Copyright trolls do not aim to sue alleged infringers, instead they use “cease and desist letters to cajole alleged infringers who, when threatened with legal action, feel fortunate that they only have to pay a fine. This saves the rights holders time and money—they can avoid going to court (because they never wanted to in the first place), avoid arguing their case and accruing legal costs, and avoid a court ruling that could go against them.
A library will receive a notice when copyright trollers find that someone using the library’s network has downloaded content, but because of a provision in the copyright law, third parties (like the library) cannot be held liable for the actions of their users. (For more explanation about this provision and how libraries should respond see Public access computers in libraries and liability concerns).
So back to my acting gig.
I was impersonating because I wanted to see what would happen if I told the copyright trolling company that the library was not liable for infringement. Would they put up a fuss? I was able to contact the company quite easily on the web. They placed their phone number in large font, right on the top of the home page. I was able to talk to a real person right away. (When your business is collecting money, you make yourself available and answer the phone). I talked to a nice man named Dan, and once I explained to him that we had liability protection under the copyright law, he was quite happy to dismiss the case. I then called the real librarian at the rural public library and told her the news. She was delighted that the problem was solved. Now that’s customer service!
In my conversation with Dan, he recommended that the library use filters to prevent access to peer-to-peer networks, or the library was likely to get more notices. I said “ok,” but really that suggestion did not sit right with me, being a librarian and all. There is enough filtering going on (see the CIPA report (pdf)), and I do not want to block access to websites and online tools that can be used for non-infringing purposes. This is akin to banning photocopiers in libraries.
Unfortunately, I know that some libraries would agree to censor. I know that some of their attorneys would recommend that the library censor. I know too many libraries that would willingly pay the cease and desist fine. Over time, we look like a bunch of pushovers, when really we should complain about these things. We have rights under the law and we have legal protections. Let’s use them with confidence! Don’t be a sucker.