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Clinton signs Net antipiracy act

The new law makes online piracy a felony offense, even if the guilty parties never profit.

President Clinton signed a law that makes online piracy a felony offense, even if the guilty parties never profit from exchanging unauthorized digital copies of software, music, or literature.

Drafted by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia), the No Electronic Theft (NET) Act, signed yesterday, makes distributing illegal copies of online copyrighted material a federal crime if the value of the works is $2,500 or more.

Based on the new law, offenders could get up to five years in See special report: Congress shapes high-tech, Net policy prison and a $250,000 fine for "willfully" 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.

There are a slew of high-tech and Net-related bills awaiting Congress members when they return from vacation in January. So far, however, the NET Act is only the third high-tech bill signed by Clinton this year. In August, the president approved an export tax exemption of up to 15 percent for the software industry, which other industries had enjoyed since 1971. He also approved $425 million for the Education Department's Technology Literacy Challenge Fund, which allocates funds to states for hardware, software, and online access.

The Software Publishers Association (SPA) and the U.S. Copyright Office lobbied for the bill's passage. But the 80,000-member Association for Computing Machinery urged Clinton to veto the bill. The international group of computer scientists argued that the law would undermine the public's right to use portions of copyrighted material under the U.S. 'fair use' doctrine.

However, some legal experts disputed the association's claims. Still, the new law gives the Microsoft-backed SPA more ammunition in its ongoing crackdown on alleged Net pirates who share, as opposed to selling, unauthorized copies of valuable software.

Internet editor Jeff Pelline contributed to this report.