Under Rep. Bob Goodlatte's (R-Virginia) No Electronic Theft Act, parties could be found guilty of piracy even if they never profit by sharing, bartering, or exchanging unauthorized copies of software, music, or literature over the Net or any computer network.
The so-called NET Act makes it a federal crime if the value of pirated material is $2,500 or more. Based on the final text, offenders could get up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for "willfully" making or possessing ten or more illegal digital copies of film clips or computer programs, for example.
A misdemeanor charge will be filed for copied material with a retail value of $1,000 or more, and comes with up to a one-year jail term.
"By passing the NET Act last night, the Senate joined the House in sending a critical warning to would-be Internet pirates--the days of avoiding prosecution, simply because no money changes hands in the distribution of illegal software, will soon be over," said Ken Wasch, president of the Software Publishers Association, which lobbied for the bill's passage.
The SPA has been vigilant in cracking down on Net pirates, including Internet service providers that host alleged software pirate sites. If signed the bill will be another tool in the SPA's and recording industry's arsenal because they will be able to go after those who share, not sell, unauthorized copies of valuable software and music.
The U.S. Copyright Office also supported the NET Act.
At first many in the telecommunications industry said the bill's reach was too broad. The United States Telephone Association contends that Internet service providers could be held liable for the acts of copyright infringement perpetrated by their customers. But an amendment passed by the House apparently released Internet service providers from most of the liability because it targets people who "willfully" infringe on copyrights.
"In principle we support the intent of the bill. We are still a bit concerned about the loose definition of 'willful,'" said Dave McClure, executive director of the Association of Online Professionals. "However, the language of the final bill makes it clear that ISPs and online services will not be held as 'willfully infringing' just by doing their job, which is routing data across their servers. That is a positive change that we support."
The same argument has been made by those who oppose a separate bill in Congress that would ratify two worldwide treaties to protect copyrights in cyberspace. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) treaties make it an international crime to reproduce or distribute digital works without permission. (See related story)
Also on Friday, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Virginia) and Rep. Tom Campbell (R-California) introduced the Digital Era Copyright Enhancement Act, which would implement the WIPO treaties as well. Unlike some of the other online copyright bills, this legislation has gained wide support from libraries. The Digital Future Coalition , the American Library Association, and the Computers and Communications Industry Association support the bill because they say it balances the rights of intellectual property owners and honors fair use and sale rights for schools and libraries.