Since last summer, the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has conducted “Operation In Our Sites,” targeting websites used to sell counterfeit goods and illegally distribute copyrighted materials. The Operation is coordinated by the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (IPR Center). Now that we’ve gotten through the names of a few of the agencies involved (skipping over probably 30 of them that contribute to these efforts – for example, ever watch “NCIS”?):

What is the Operation up to?

As of six months ago, the IPR Center had seized 120 domain names, 65 of which were taken via judicial process. The associated legal action is called “administrative forfeiture,” wherein parties having an interest in the seized domain names can file a petition with a federal court both after a “Notice of Seizure” and any subsequent “Notice of Forfeiture.” Absent a victorious claim, the rights holder’s domain name becomes the property of the federal government.

Here are some specific examples of Operation enforcement:

• In February 2011, the IPR Center seized 18 domain names of commercial websites engaged in the illegal sale and distribution of counterfeit goods.

• In February 2011, HSI seized 10 websites that illegally streamed live sporting telecasts and pay-per-view events over the Internet.

• In November 2010, 83 domain names of commercial websites engaged in the illegal sale and distribution of counterfeit goods and copyrighted works were seized.

• In June 2010, in a shock-and-awe effort at the outset of the Operation, investigators executed seizure warrants against the owners of nine domain names offering pirated copies of first-run movies, music and software.

This past week, it was reported that ICE seized another 20 domain names associated with the sale of counterfeit and unauthorized NFL merchandise.

That news last week raises an interesting issue. Should government resources be allocated to Internet law and trademark enforcement actions benefitting private entities (the NFL, in this case) who may be able to bring their own immense resources to bear in the protection of their intellectual property? With the federal government now perpetually struggling to meet its budget obligations, the inquiry cannot be treated lightly.

The broader argument for government involvement, as recited by ICE, posits that trademark and copyright infringement costs the United States jobs, reduces the incentive for U.S. innovation, and is tied to various other sorts of crime. A major component of the ICE Operation is also public education: a person attempting to visit a site seized under the Operation is likely to be greeted by a public service announcement about the economic and social ills created by illicit domain name activity, complete with prominent displays of the seals of some of the more imposing agencies involved.

If you are a proponent of the “see something, say something” campaign that accompanies other Homeland Security initiatives, here is where you can report illegal domain name activity relating to trademark and copyright infringement.

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