On Tuesday, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to approve a measure that would shake up the Copyright Office if it were made into law, creating a small claims court where online content creators can go after their infringers.
The Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act, or the CASE Act for short, was approved by 410-6 vote. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) introduced the measure last year with the goal of giving graphic artists, photographers, and other content creators a more efficient pathway toward receiving damages if their works are infringed. Under current law, all copyright suits must go through the federal courts, a system that is often costly and time-consuming for creators who decide to litigate their cases.
With the CASE Act, Congress is hoping to streamline the process for both parties by way of the process proposed in the bill. If the measure were to become law, the Copyright Office would house a tribunal of “Copyright Claims Officers” who would work with both parties involved in a lawsuit to resolve infringement claims. As outlined in the bill, damages would be capped at $15,000 for each infringed work and top out at $30,000 total.
“The internet has provided many benefits to society. It is a wonderful thing, but it cannot be allowed to function as if it is the Wild West with absolutely no rules,” Jeffries told The Verge in an interview back in September. “We have seen that there are bad actors throughout society and the world who take advantage of the internet as a platform in a variety of ways. We cannot allow it.”
The internet has made it easy for potential infringers to copy and paste creative works from artists, especially those whose businesses exist primarily online. However, internet advocacy and civil rights groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union have warned that a system like the one proposed by the CASE Act could cost the average internet user thousands for simply sharing a meme or lead to encroachments on their First Amendment rights.
“Any system to enable easier enforcement of copyrights runs the risk of creating a chilling effect with respect to speech online,” the ACLU wrote in a letter to lawmakers on Monday urging them to oppose the measure. “Many of these cases will be legitimate. However, some will not, and others, even if brought in good faith, may be defensible as fair use or for some other permissible reason.”
Jeffries and others who support the bill argue that the small-claims tribunal is only an option and not a requirement for those who are looking to settle a copyright suit. Both parties need to agree to go forward in this way.
“There is no gun that is being held to anyone’s head, because the small claims court like tribunal is voluntary in nature,” Jeffries told The Verge. “Any argument made to the contrary, represents a deliberate attempt to misrepresent what’s at stake as part of the effort to do away with the content copyright laws that have been part of the fabric of our democracy since the founding of the Republic and in fact the Constitution.”
“The internet doesn’t change the Constitution,” Jeffries continued.
Some organizations that oppose the bill, like the ACLU, agree that something should be done to fix a broken copyright system, but argue that previous changes like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) have been wrought with abuse. When someone receives a DMCA takedown, oftentimes they’ll take down perfectly legal content protected under “fair use” entirely out of caution to avoid legal action.
In remarks made on the House floor Tuesday, Jeffries called the DMCA takedown system “inefficient, cumbersome,” and even “pointless” for content creators.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has already voted the bill out of committee. It currently awaits a vote on the Senate floor.