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House votes to target P2P pirates

Congress wants to make it easier to imprison rampant file swappers; critics say FBI's time is better spent fighting terrorism.

In a move that takes aim at file-swapping networks, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to boost penalties for online piracy and increase federal police powers against Net copyright infringement.

By voice vote, politicians on Tuesday approved a sweeping copyright bill that would make it easier for the FBI and federal prosecutors to investigate and convict file swappers. Other sections criminalize unauthorized recordings made in movie theaters and encourage the Justice Department to target Internet copyright infringement.

"Millions of pirated movies, music, software, game and other copyrighted files are now available for free download from suspect peer-to-peer networks," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who heads a copyright subcommittee. "This piracy harms everyone, from those looking for legitimate sources of content to those who create it." The bill enjoys the strong support of the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America.

Opponents had mounted an unsuccessful, last-ditch campaign earlier in the day to urge House leaders to remove the Piracy Deterrence and Education Act from the floor schedule.

Letters signed by groups including four library associations, the American Conservative Union, the National Taxpayers Union, and Public Knowledge argued that the measure would "radically expand the scope" of copyright liability and divert $15 million in federal funds from the war on terror to "protecting Hollywood's and Big Music's parochial interests."

The most controversial section of the bill punishes Internet users who offer "for distribution to the public" $1,000 or more in copyrighted materials with prison terms of up to three years and fines of up to $250,000. If it became law, prosecutors would not have to prove that $1,000 in copyrighted materials were actually downloaded; they would need to show only that those files had been publicly accessible in a shared folder.

An existing law called the No Electronic Theft Act already permits federal prosecutors to bring criminal charges against individual copyright infringers, though no such prosecutions have taken place so far. About the closest the government has come to that politically charged possibility is the announcement last month that a specific file-swapping group called the Underground Network is being investigated.

With Tuesday's vote, the legislation now goes to the Senate, which has not yet held hearings on it.