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Leaked proposals detail copyright holders' website blocking code plans

Copyright holders have proposed plans that could lead to the blocking of websites in the UK over the hosting of infringing material, according to leaked reports.

The Rightsholder Group has created the plans to inform discussions with the Government and ISPs over how to tackle online copyright infringement, according to the leaked documents. They have outlined a voluntary code that would let an "expert body" decide if websites that host copyright-infringing material should be blocked.

Under the plans copyright owners would identify websites they believe are infringing their copyright and an "expert body" would then decide whether to recommend that a court issues an injunction banning the site from hosting infringing material, according to the documents.

Internet service providers (ISPs) that sign-up to the code will then block access to the sites, the documents said.

"The objective is to establish a system that protects a copyright owner's property rights by substantially inhibiting infringement while protecting the legitimate interests of consumers, ,site operators and service providers, including (where relevant) access to services and information and freedom of expression," the Rightsholder Group said in the leaked document (8-page / 1.07MB PDF).

Under the new code rights holders should inform websites that they are taking infringement action against them "where possible" and website owners should be able to appeal against ISPs blocking access to their sites, the document said.

Application of the code could work efficiently enough to combat websites that cover copyrightable live events, the Rightsholder Group said in the document. Some websites currently allow users to stream live content, such as broadcasts from football matches.

Consumer Focus, a customer's rights group, said website blocking was not an effective solution to online copyright infringement.

"Consumers’ willingness to, or preference for, watching football games online and on mobile devices will not diminish because access to unlicensed websites is blocked," Consumer Focus said in a statement (2-page /131KB PDF).

"As such website blocking does not represent an effective solution," the consumer group said.

The Department for Culture Media and Sport confirmed that a meeting to discuss the proposals had taken place between rights holders, internet service providers (ISPs) and the Government.

“The Government hosted a useful discussion between ISPs and rights holders on issues around industry proposals for a site blocking scheme to help tackle online copyright infringement," a DCMS spokesman said in a statement it sent to OUT-LAW.

“Consumer representatives were invited and Consumer Focus attended the meeting,” the statement said.

Details of the proposals were first revealed by blogger James Firth who posted about the secret meeting on his website.

Firth said a Government contact had told him Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, had commented on the proposals, saying "if it's a voluntary scheme, go and do it". This implies that Government does not need to be involved, Firth said in his blog.

The Rightsholder Group said that the self regulatory measures could "largely supplant" the need for regulations governing online copyright infringement that are a requirement of a new UK law, according to the document.

The Digital Economy Act (DEA) requires Ofcom to write new rules governing copyright infringements over the internet.

Ofcom, the UK's media regulator, drafted plans last year that would force ISPs to hand over details of customers who were illegally sharing files of copyrighted material to copyright holders to allow them to take action. If the Government enacts Ofcom's draft code ISPs could have to suspend users' internet access if they are found to be illegally downloading copyrighted material.

BT, the largest ISP in the UK, and fellow provider TalkTalk lost a High Court legal challenge against the part of the DEA that could make ISPs responsible for the copyright infringement of users. The Court of Appeal has refused to hear an appeal by the ISPs. They had argued that the DEA violated EU privacy and electronic communications laws.

BT is said to be against the rightholders' voluntary code plans, according to a report by The Register.

Discussions over how to enforce online copyright infringement measures should be held in public, free speech campaigners said.

"It is critical that policy making happens through a broad and open public debate, especially on matters that so tangibly affect rights such as access to information and freedom of expression," Peter Bradwell from the Open Rights Group (ORG) said in a statement.

"This is not simply about the rights of 'sites that facilitate infringement' or those running them. It is about the processes through which decisions are made about what you are allowed to see and do. Clumsy, quasi-judicial and unaccountable website blocking is dangerous for exactly that reason," the statement said.

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