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RIAA escalates piracy witchhunt, points its pitchfork at domain registrars

It’s no secret that there’s tons of copyright infringing material —illegally-sourced music and movies — available for free download on countless websites. Piracy is the blight of the movie and music industry, and, in the past, organizations like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) have targeted the owners of these websites and even the website’s hosting providers. But now the RIAA is targeting domain registrars — those nameless companies that that provide domain names to websites.

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Let’s say you buy a domain name — we’ll fictitiously call it freemusicandmovies.com — from a website domain registrar like GoDaddy (one of the few registrars people have heard of). Then, you decide to host copyrighted music and movies for download on your site. Now, who’s to be held responsible for your illegal activity? Who can be held responsible for taking it down?  Well, according to the RIAA, it should be able to order GoDaddy to take down your site, even though GoDaddy has nothing to do with your decision violate copyright law.

A new open letter from the recording industry states this perspective, following in the footsteps of Hollywood’s MPAA (via Torrent Freak).

“We expect all in the internet ecosystem to take responsible measures to deter copyright infringement to help meet this goal,” said RIAA’s senior vice president Victoria Sheckler.

This strategy may simply be another way to cut down on music piracy, but the organization which represents domain registrars (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN) has argued that they’re only responsible for the domain name — not the content on the site, which is hosted elsewhere.

The US government, as explained by the United States Trade Representative Notorious Markets report, agrees with the RIAA’s stance that domain registrars should be responsible for court-ordered takedown notices. The report specifically mentions one domain registrar, Canada-based Tucows, as one that hasn’t taken action when notified of its clients’ infringing activity. Furthermore, “some registrars even advertise to the online community that they will not take action against illicit activity,” according to the report.

Even if domain registrars did follow court orders, the RIAA wants more: they want the domain registrars to take sites down when someone reports copyright infringing content — not just when the court tells them to. And the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a US non-profit digital rights group, points out that this might be an unrealistic goal. “Unless ordered by a court, registrars cannot be compelled to take down a website,” said Jeremy Malcolm of the EFF.

The RIAA and the MPAA don’t seem to care, though. They just want pirated sites disconnected. And if they can get ICANN on their side, they might just get their way.