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Congress to legislate file swapping?

California senator issues peer-to-peer ultimatum: "Either it's going to be legal, or it isn't going to exist."

WASHINGTON--A California senator has suggested that because file-sharing networks continue to house illegal files, they should be shut down.

Intellectual property protection "can't function in a country where the high-tech services become such that you can't protect copyright," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said Wednesday at a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. The session centered on the landmark Supreme Court decision on MGM v. Grokster, which ruled that file-sharing services can be liable for their users' infringing behavior.

Pointing to what she called a "rise in peer to peers" since the Grokster decision, Feinstein said current law is not effective enough to deter illegal file swapping and the government must enact stronger enforcement measures. "If we don't stop it," she said, "it's going to destroy these intellectual property industries."

It remained unclear what remedies the senator would seek, though she said she didn't think any lawmakers supported an approach that would involve "going out and arresting high schoolers" who subvert copyright rules. Even so, her statements marked somewhat of a departure: When the Grokster decision initially came out, members of Congress said they were inclined to take a hands-off, wait-and-see approach.

Committee chair Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, indicated that Congress was better suited than the courts to address the matter. But at the close of the hearing, he announced, "At least in the short term, I think we'll carry out the wishes of those who want us to do nothing."

That, indeed, was the sentiment senators generally heard from members of a panel representing the peer-to-peer, recording industry, consumer electronics and legal realms--echoing statements similar entities made at an earlier Senate hearing.

But Mary Beth Peters, registrar for the U.S. Copyright Office, said Congress needs to take immediate action on reforming what she deemed an "antiquated" section of copyright law that provides an "inefficient process to license musical works."

The law's "one at a time" approach for licensing individual musical works creates a tremendous roadblock for legitimate online services looking to add large amounts of media to their catalogs, she said. She--and later, Recording Industry Association of American President Cary Sherman--said a "blanket" licensing approach may be an option.

Lawmakers and panelists alike also indicated interest in promoting one-stop, third-party copyright registries--such as Snocap, created by Napster founder Shawn Fanning--that would amass terms of distribution from copyright holders and make them available to interested online retailers. Such a process is designed to save retailers time by erasing their need to broker large numbers of individual deals.