Senate panel approves RIAA-backed copyright bill

The Senate Judiciary Committee votes to hand the Justice Department the power to file civil lawsuits against peer-to-peer infringers. Some Republicans dissent.

WASHINGTON--A U.S. Senate panel on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bill backed by the recording industry that would give federal prosecutors the power to file civil lawsuits against peer-to-peer users who violate copyright laws.

By a 14-4 margin, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted for the Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights Act, which would create stricter IP laws, as well as increase the ability of the White House and Justice Department to enforce those laws. All four dissenters were Republicans: John Kyl of Arizona, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Sam Brownback of Kansas, and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

"We all know that intellectual property makes up some of the most valuable, and most vulnerable, property we have," said Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who introduced the bill with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) in July. "We need to do more to protect it from theft and abuse if we hope to continue being a world leader in innovation."

Leahy added an amendment that he said would address some privacy concerns. The amendment expanded mandatory, court-issued protective orders to cover any records seized by law enforcement, to protect potentially confidential or private information. (The Justice Department's proposed power to file civil lawsuits remains intact.)

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) added two successful amendments to the bill: One adds the Department of Agriculture as a member of the interagency intellectual property enforcement advisory committee. His other amendment ensures a transition of power from the government's current IP efforts to a new IP coordinator, once he or she is confirmed by Congress.

The Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America have supported the bill. On Thursday, the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also expressed their approval of the vote. Caroline Joiner, vice president of the chamber's Global Intellectual Property Center, said in a statement: "The full Senate can now demonstrate its solidarity with our talented innovators, workers whose jobs rely on intellectual property, and consumers who depend on safe and effective products."

In general, the bill toughens civil and criminal laws against counterfeiting and piracy. For instance, it amends current trademark law to double the statutory damages in counterfeiting cases.

Groups such as the American Library Association and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are opposed to portions, including the Justice Department pursuing taxpayer-funded lawsuits on behalf of private parties.

The act also expands the power of the White House by creating an IP Enforcement Coordinator (IPEC) position within the executive branch. The IPEC would direct other agencies in a coordinated strategy to fight counterfeiting and piracy.

The bill also adds five new International IP Enforcement Coordinators to act as liaisons to foreign countries with respect to U.S. IP law enforcement.

The House of Representatives passed a similar bill earlier in the year called the "Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act."

CNET News' Declan McCullagh contributed to this report

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