Trans-Atlantic response to online piracy? (Updated)

Copyright Content owners should probably keep this in the wishful-thinking file for now but British communications minister Ed Vaizey hinted strongly this week at an emerging trans-Atlantic alliance to recruit ISPs more fully into the battle against online piracy.

Speaking at the Intellect Consumer Electronics conference in London, Vaizey called reports that a deal was in the works in the U.S. between leading ISPs and copyright owners to adopt a voluntary system of graduated response to online infringement a potential “game-changer” that could break a deadlock in similar talks underway in the U.K.

Vaizey has been overseeing closed-door talks over the past several months between ISPs and copyright groups to try to come up with a cooperative approach to online piracy to defuse the current legal standoff over anti-piracy provisions in the Digital Economy Act passed by Parliament last year.
Earlier this year, the two largest British ISPs, British Telecom and TalkTalk , went to court to block implementation of the law’s mandatory system of graduated response. While the talks convened by the Communications Ministry continue, reaching an agreement is unlikely so long as the court case remains pending.

On Tuesday, however, Vaizey suggested that a deal on a voluntary system in the U.S. could break the whole log-jam in the the U.K. as well.

“A voluntary agreement may come out of the US and if that does happen it could be a game-changer,” Vaizey said.

How likely is that? A report last month by CNET News, which broke the story, said the U.S. talks were in an advanced stage and that a deal involving Verizon, AT&T and Comcast could be announced as early as this month. Whether other ISPs would sign on was unclear, although NCTA has been involved in the conversations, according to the report. The White House, which has made intellectual property protection a priority, has also been involved, sources told CNET.

Key to the purported agreement in the U.S. is that it would allow ISPs flexibility in the sanctions they could impose on repeat infringers. After sending warning letters, called Copyright Alerts, participating ISPs would be able to choose from a menu of responses, including throttling the bandwidth speed of accused infringers, restricting their access to a limited number of websites or requiring participation in an education program in order to maintain Internet access.

It’s unclear from the reports, or from Vaizey’s comments, whether the U.S. and U.K. governments are coordinating efforts to broker deals between ISPs and copyright owners, or at what level any such conversations may be occurring. But many of the same players are involved on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly on the copyright owners’ side. Even if no conversations have occurred at the ministerial level, at least some of the negotiators in the U.K. are well-placed to know what’s happening in the U.S. talks, which might explain Vaizey’s optimism about the impact of a U.S. deal.

Stay tuned.

Further reading:

Major Australian ISPs to Block 500+ Websites

ISPs: No Agreement on Web Blocking Plans (UK)

OECD Releases Open Internet Framework

UPDATE: It appears Minister Vaizey will get his wish — the first part of it anyway. Shortly after this post went up, a group of U.S. ISPs and the movie and music industries announced a voluntary “framework” for curbing online copyright infringement.

Ars Technica has a full write up here. A fact sheet with details of the system and the new Center for Copyright Information that will coordinate the system, is available here. Press release is here.

Participating companies and organizations include:

  • MPAA and MPAA members: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures; Paramount Pictures Corporation; Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.; Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; Universal City Studios LLC; and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
  • RIAA and RIAA members: Universal Music Group Recordings, Warner Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and EMI Music North America.
  • ISPs: AT&T, Cablevision Systems Corp., Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable, and Verizon.
  • IFTA: representing the Independent Producers & Distributors of Film & Television Programming.
  • A2IM: representing their 283 music label members, small and medium sized businesses located across the United States representing many different musical genres reflective of the cultural diversity of our country.