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Screenwriters warn against overreaching copyright laws ahead of reform

Screenwriters warn against overreaching copyright laws ahead of reform

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One of America's foremost groups of movie and TV writers has written a detailed statement on the current and future states of copyright law. The Writers Guild of America West (WGAW) begins its letter by saying writers benefit hugely from the present system, noting that its members received roughly 25 percent of their income through residual payments for copyrighted sales such as DVD sales and online streaming. The guild is of the opinion that copyright is of immense benefit to society as a whole, but nonetheless fears that bolstering copyright laws may not be the best way forward for the entertainment industry.

Bolstering copyright laws may not be the best way forward

In the statement, which was written in response to a green paper on copyright reform, WGAW raises concerns over five areas: the current "notice and takedown" system of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), improper fees for copyright infringers, voluntary copyright infringement agreements, and the growth of digital sales and streaming. It's not unusual for the guild to speak out against proposals from major allies like the MPAA; it previously raised concerns about the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

The DMCA allows copyright owners to file takedown notices requesting a website removes material that infringes copyright. WGAW believes the concept behind the takedowns is sound, but believes there's room for improvement. DMCA takedowns should be easier to file, especially for independent creators and smaller copyright owners, and work needs to be done to prevent "mistaken or abusive notices that target fair use of copyrighted works." Incorrect DMCA notices are a regular occurrence, and the guild cites a erroneous notice sentry a Microsoft anti-piracy contractor filed that targeted Wikipedia and even Microsoft's own webpages.

Voluntary agreements "place the burden of proof on accused infringers."

Some studios and publishers have gone further to protect their copyright, making voluntary agreements with major media companies and ISPs. WGAW notes that these agreements have not proved their effectiveness in limiting copyright infringement, and do not contain adequate consumer protections. The guild argues that voluntary agreements to enforce copyright often put the burden of proof on those that are alleged to have infringed, rather than the copyright owner making the accusation. This can result in networks suspending websites and content without proof that any infringement has occurred.

Fines have "become unmoored from the actual damage caused"

WGAW also argues against "massive statutory damages" currently allowed under copyright law. We've all heard stories of copyright infringers being handed large fines for their behavior, and the guild laments they have "become unmoored from the actual damaged cause by copyright infringement." It notes that, at the trial relating to the torrent site isoHunt, the MPAA requested nearly $600 million in statutory damages, despite admitting that $5 million would be more than enough to bankrupt the defendants. It argues that such large fines can stifle investment in legitimate sites that act as a breeding ground for creativity. These sites are vital to the promotion of independent material, as "television and film are controlled by a handful of media companies who decide what content consumers have access to."