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New bill backs prison time for piracy 'attempts'

Republican-backed measure, which takes cues from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's legislative wishlist, would impose stiffer penalties across the board for copyright-related offenses.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales may not have a lot of pals in Congress these days, but he has nevertheless found someone willing to pursue the dramatic copyright crackdown lurking on his legislative wishlist.

Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) introduced a bill last week that appears to take its cues from controversial proposals circulated by the Justice Department chief in recent years, which include stiffer prison sentences for copyright-related crimes and creation of entirely new categories of punishable activities.

Notably, under Chabot's bill, called the Intellectual Property Enhanced Criminal Enforcement Act of 2007, it would be a crime not only to commit copyright infringement but also to "attempt" to do so. Such an offense would carry the same penalties as actually committing infringement--as would engaging in a "conspiracy" with two or more people to carry it out.

The bill would also double the prison sentences currently prescribed for copyright infringement violations, bringing them up to a range of 6 to 20 years.

Life behind bars would also be within the realm of possibility. Trafficking in counterfeit goods and services--including, for example, a hospital using pirated software instead of paying for it--could carry that hefty prison term "if the offender knowingly or recklessly causes or attempts to cause death" through his or her conduct, according to the bill.

The bill also grafts additional penalties onto the thorny Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which dictates it's unlawful to sidestep copyright protection technologies except in certain circumstances. Right now, violating those rules can land you up to 10 years behind bars and as much as $1 million in fines, but Chabot's bill would also require the criminal to forfeit any property used in any manner to commit the offense--or anything garnered directly or indirectly from the proceeds of the activity. (The same forfeiture obligations would also apply to a wide array of other copyright-related offenses.)

Digital rights activists are already bristling at the new language, which currently has no co-sponsors. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, for instance, has argued that the bill and similar past efforts would lead to more convictions of innocent people. In a recent blog post, EFF activism coordinator said he hopes the Chabot proposal "meets the same fate as last year's DoJ proposal and is stopped dead in its tracks."

The Recording Industry Association of America declined to comment. A Motion Picture Industry Association of America spokeswoman praised the effort, adding, "Enforcement is a critical part of overall intellectual property protection."

A relatively new Washington-based group called the Copyright Alliance, which counts both of the entertainment industry groups and a number of others among its membership, also applauded the bill's introduction. Executive director Patrick Ross said in a statement that Chabot "is to be commended for his effort to strengthen enforcement of creators' rights, such as increased resources for law enforcement and the reduction of international trafficking in pirated goods."

Whether the Republican-backed bill will go anywhere in a Democratic Congress already hostile to the attorney general is always wild card.

But now that consideration of an all-consuming patent law overhaul bill is mostly out of his hands, the Hollywood-friendly chairman of a House intellectual property subcommittee, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), may have more time to revisit the wishes of his politically powerful constituents. (Chabot also sits on that subcommittee.) The Copyright Alliance's Ross predicted that the Chabot bill would likely be just the first of several legislative attempts to deter piracy.