Senator pulls support for copyright bill

A key Republican senator says the bill, which would make it a crime to distribute counterfeit authentication features including digital watermarks, raises a "host of troubling liability issues."

A key Republican senator on Thursday withdrew his support for an anti-piracy bill that would make it a crime to distribute counterfeit authentication features including digital watermarks.

Sen. George Allen, R-Va., said he could no longer support a proposal titled Anticounterfeiting Amendments of 2002 because of changes that came just before a committee voted in July to send it to the Senate floor.

The bill originally targeted the kind of large-scale pirates who manufacture fake Windows holograms and enjoyed broad support from software makers such as Microsoft. But, in a little-noticed move previously reported by CNET, the Senate Judiciary Committee rewrote the bill to encompass technology used in digital rights management. Following the revisions, companies that had previously backed the measure pulled their support for the bill.

"Opening this legislation to the digital realm has caused the virtually unanimous industry support behind it to evaporate, and it has raised a host of troubling liability issues that cause substantial harm to Internet service providers," Allen, who chairs the Senate Republican High Tech Task Force, said in a statement.

A Verizon Communications executive said in a recent interview that her employer opposes the revised bill, as does Microsoft. A spokesman for Allen said Apple Computer, eBay and Yahoo have lobbied against it.

Because the bill has been reported favorably out of committee, it is ready for a Senate floor vote at any time. Its sponsors include key Democrats and Republicans, including Senate Commerce Chairman Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the top GOPer on the Judiciary committee.

The original bill, drafted by Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., made it a crime to counterfeit "physical features" such as holograms or special boxes used to certify software, CDs or DVDs as authentic. (Current federal law covers only "counterfeit labels," not physical holograms or other packaging material.) The revised version, however, covers "any feature" used to guarantee authenticity.

Merely creating a fake watermark or digital signature would not be illegal, but "trafficking" in it or redistributing the file would.

Biden's revised bill would make it a federal felony to try and trick certain types of devices into playing music or running unauthorized computer programs. Breaking this law, even if it's to share legally created music, carries prison terms of up to five years.

Verizon and other telecommunications companies are even more concerned about the section of the bill that prohibits "trafficking" in or redistributing such files. It contains no exemption for Internet providers.

The revised version "divided the community, so to speak, the industry, and went far afield from the original intent of the bill," said Matt Raymond, a spokesman for Allen. Biden's office could not immediately be reached for comment.

There is a similar proposal in the House of Representatives, titled the Intellectual Property Protection Act of 2002. But that version is akin to Biden's original bill and covers only "physical authentication features."

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