Justice Dept.: Let RIAA do its work

Feds might not be interested in new power to pursue file-swappers.

At least one top U.S. Department of Justice official isn't crazy about a proposed law that would let federal prosecutors target online copyright infringers with civil lawsuits. "There's something to be said for those who help themselves," Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Hewitt Pate said at a conference in Aspen Tuesday.

The Recording Industry Association of America has backed the idea of federal civil prosecutions as a way to cut down on file swapping. The idea is contained in the Pirate Act, short for Protecting Intellectual Rights Against Theft and Expropriation Act of 2004, which has already passed in the Senate.

The civil liability would be a boon for the RIAA and Hollywood, in the sense that it might let the feds take some of their lawsuit burden away. You can see why the Justice Department wouldn't be terribly excited. The RIAA has already filed nearly 3,500 suits against swappers, with an average return of only a few thousand dollars per settlement. Justice Department accountants can't be happy looking at those numbers.

The federal government already pursues criminal charges against online copyright infringers, however. One recent case, sparked by MPAA complaints, saw the Justice Department charge a Cincinnati man with illegally offering episodes of "Stargate SG-1" on a Web site devoted to that show.

A Justice Department spokesman told me last week that Adam Clark McGaughey has agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge later this month. (He also said the feds had not used provisions of the Patriot Act to investigate McGaughey, countering a widely circulated Web rumor.)

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