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Proposed new piracy penalties advance in House

House panel unanimously backs bill that would appoint new intellectual-property enforcers and allow the feds to seize equipment used to commit infringement.

A congressional proposal designed to stiffen penalties and enforcement against pirates and counterfeiters moved a step closer to becoming law on Wednesday.

As expected, the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee unanimously approved a copyright holder-backed enforcement proposal known as the Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property, or Pro-IP, Act, which is chiefly sponsored by the committee's chairman, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.).

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the committee's ranking member, said the U.S. Department of Justice is filing more intellectual-property cases than ever--217 in 2007--but suggested that's still not enough. The bill's passage shows "there is a bipartisan commitment to ensure the next president and succeeding administrations have the resources, organizations, and strategies that are required to protect our vital national and economic interests," he said in a statement.

The revised 68-page measure does not contain a controversial provision that would have dramatically increased fines in copyright infringement lawsuits.

The bill would, however, rewrite U.S. law to allow federal officials to seize property from convicted copyright infringers who made unauthorized copies of music, movies, or live performances. That property could include computers or other equipment used to commit intellectual-property crimes or obtained as a result of those proceeds. In civil cases, the feds would have to establish that there was a "substantial connection" between the property and the offense.

At a previous hearing, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said she worried that approach doesn't address the possibility that property could be seized from innocent people if a convicted pirate used it to commit crimes without their knowledge. (At least one defendant in a peer-to-peer lawsuit brought by the RIAA was sued because someone else was using their Wi-Fi access point.)

The bill would also create a new presidentially appointed position whose pick would be charged with acting as a chief adviser on intellectual property enforcement matters. The U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Representative, as the position would be known, appears to be modeled after the U.S. Trade Representative, which already has some intellectual property enforcement responsibilities and puts out an annual report on global piracy.

The proposal also calls for the appointment of 10 new intellectual-property "attaches" to serve in U.S. embassies and creation of a new "intellectual property enforcement division" within the Justice Department. The Justice Department, for its part, has been resistant to those bureaucratic changes, arguing that its current setup is already effective enough.

The Copyright Alliance, a coalition of major copyright holders, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a pro-business group, were quick to praise the bill's passage.

"The Judiciary Committee has taken a necessary step to ensure America's innovation industries continue to create jobs, develop creative products, discover the drugs that cure critical diseases, and find cutting edge technology solutions to global challenges such as climate change," Caroline Joiner, executive director of the U.S. Chamber's Global Intellectual Property Center, said in a statement. "We urge the full House and Senate to pass the legislation so it can be signed into law."