House OKs copyright czar, new piracy penalties

Approved bill would enable seizure of property linked to piracy or counterfeiting, but Justice Department isn't wild about creating a White House-based copyright enforcer.

A bipartisan proposal to create an intellectual-property czar and impose new penalties on pirates sailed through the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday.

By a 410-10 vote, the House approved the Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property, or Pro-IP, Act, which is backed by the entertainment industry and other major copyright holders. The proposal is chiefly sponsored by Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairmen of the House Judiciary Committee.

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

In addition, the bill would also create a new position, presidentially appointed within the Executive Office of the President, charged with acting as a chief adviser on intellectual-property enforcement matters. The U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Representative, as it 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 measure had previously drawn harsh criticism from consumer advocacy groups because of a controversial provision that would have dramatically increased fines in copyright infringement lawsuits. But that section was stripped out during a committee vote, seemingly to avert proposal-killing opposition, though the bill's sponsors said they plan to revisit the issue.

Thursday's vote may have arrived scarcely a week after the House Judiciary Committee lent its backing to the bill, but it seems unlikely to be on a fast track to becoming law, thanks to vocal objections from the Bush administration.

The U.S. Department of Justice has complained that establishing such a new White House-based intellectual-property officer is unnecessary and could undermine its traditional authority in prosecuting copyright cases.

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