House panel approves copyright bill

A House of Representatives panel approves a sweeping new copyright bill that would boost penalties for peer-to-peer piracy and increase federal police powers against Internet copyright infringement.

A House of Representatives panel has approved a sweeping new copyright bill that would boost penalties for peer-to-peer piracy and increase federal police powers against Internet copyright infringement.

The House Judiciary intellectual property subcommittee voted for the "Piracy Deterrence and Education Act" (PDEA) late Wednesday, overruling objections from a minority of members that it would unreasonably expand the FBI's powers to demand private information from Internet service providers.

The PDEA--the result of intense lobbying from large copyright holders over the past six months--has emerged as a kind of grab-bag that combines other proposals introduced in the past but not approved. One section that first surfaced last year punishes an Internet user who makes available $1,000 in copyrighted materials with prison terms of up to three years and fines of up to $250,000. If the PDEA became law, prosecutors would not have to prove that $1,000 in copyrighted materials were downloaded--they would need only to show that those files had been publicly accessible in a shared folder.

One part of the PDEA that did not appear in earlier bills would require the FBI to "facilitate the sharing" of information among Internet providers, copyright holders and police.

"I am sure (that its sponsor) does not mean to expand the powers of the FBI," Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said during the subcommittee hearing. "The concern I have is that this is very ambiguous. The language itself could lead an aggressive FBI to a different conclusion." Lofgren's attempt to amend the PDEA failed by a 4-14 vote.

Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., a PDEA supporter whose district abuts Hollywood, said that Lofgren's conclusions were unfounded. "They have been as passive as you can be," Berman said, referring to the FBI. "They have authority they don't exercise."

Although Congress has pressured the department to use the No Electronic Theft Act to jail file swappers, no such prosecutions have taken place so far. Earlier Wednesday, however, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the creation of a task force on copyright violations.

The PDEA is an improved version of last year's legislation and will assist "federal law enforcement authorities in their efforts to investigate and prosecute intellectual property crimes," Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Tex., the subcommittee's chairman, said in his opening remarks. Smith said that the reworked version "clarifies and narrows the application of criminal copyright law to the worst P2P offenders."

Other sections of the PDEA would require Ashcroft to boost the number of antipiracy cops on the Justice Department's payroll, and order the U.S. Sentencing Commission to revisit prison term guidelines to make sure they reflect "the loss attributable to people broadly distributing copyrighted works over the Internet without authorization." The PDEA also combines parts of another of last year's proposals that bans unauthorized recording in movie theaters and includes harsh penalties if pre-release movies are swapped on peer-to-peer networks.

Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge, a nonprofit group that agitates for fair use rights, said in a statement after Wednesday's vote that: "We hope the full Judiciary Committee will take a harder look at the change in the standard needed for prosecution of copyright infringement under this bill. The new standard created by the subcommittee could criminalize what is now lawful use of copyrighted materials."

At the same hearing, the House subcommittee also approved a bill that would increase criminal penalties for selling counterfeit labels that could go on CD-ROMs or software packages, and another bill to increase felony penalties for using false contact information when registering a domain name.

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