Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

Hollywood hacking bill hits House

A bill introduced in the House of Representatives would dramatically rewrite federal law to permit copyright owners to legally hack into peer-to-peer networks.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
4 min read
WASHINGTON--Copyright owners would be able to legally hack into peer-to-peer networks, according to a bill introduced in the House of Representatives on Thursday.

As previously reported by CNET News.com, the measure would dramatically rewrite federal law to permit nearly unchecked electronic disruptions if a copyright holder has a "reasonable basis" to believe that piracy is occurring.

The bill, sponsored by Reps. Howard Berman, D-Calif., and Howard Coble, R-N.C., would immunize groups such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) from all state and federal laws if they disable, block or otherwise impair a "publicly accessible peer-to-peer file-trading network."

"The bill my colleagues and I introduce today will free the marketplace to develop technologies that thwart P2P piracy without impairing P2P networks themselves," Berman said in a statement Thursday. "It will do so by allowing copyright owners, in certain limited circumstances, to use technological tools to thwart P2P piracy without fear of liability."

Berman did not say what techniques he anticipated content owners would use. He said, however, that "removing the unintended legal constraints on technologies that may help deal with the problem is an important part of the solution."

Even before the proposal was introduced, legal scholars and technology trade associations began to criticize it.

"The bill is a nightmare," said Mark Lemley, who teaches intellectual property law at the University of California at Berkeley. "I am amazed that after Sept. 11, members of Congress are willing to sacrifice our nation's computer security in order to give Hollywood yet another tool in its already formidable arsenal against piracy."

Lemley predicted that the practical effect of the bill would be to eliminate peer-to-peer networking. "If content owners can shut down a network with impunity, they may stop some piracy, but they will also stop any hope of using this important new technology for legitimate means," he said.

Because Congress only has about five work weeks left before it is scheduled to adjourn for the year, the outlook for the bill is uncertain.

However, its sponsors include top Republican and Democratic committee chairmen so it's likely to receive a warm welcome in the House of Representatives at a hearing tentatively scheduled for this fall. Coble is the chairman of the House subcommittee on intellectual property, and Berman is the top Democrat on the panel.

Behind the bill
Read the complete text of the Berman copyright bill
A section-by-section analysis of the Berman bill
Rep. Berman's public statement on the copyright bill
In a statement released on Thursday afternoon, the RIAA welcomed the bill.

"We applaud Congressman Berman for introducing bipartisan legislation that takes an innovative approach to combating the serious problem of Internet piracy," said Hilary Rosen, CEO of the RIAA.

"The current landscape for online music is dangerously one-sided, with the peer-to-peer pirates enjoying an unfair advantage," Rosen said. "It makes sense to clarify existing laws to ensure that copyright owners...are at least able to defend their works from mass piracy."

Tech vs. Hollywood
Will Rodger, the director of public policy at the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), said his group would do its utmost to oppose the bill. CCIA's members include AOL Time Warner, Sun Microsystems and Oracle.

"If I have one illegal MP3 on my computer, Hollywood gets $50 of free damage," Rodger said, referring to a part of the still-unnamed bill that says an electronic intrusion may not cause "economic loss of more than $50 per impairment to the property of the affected file trader."

"Extending that logic further," Rodger said, "if I have 50 infringing MP3s on my computer, Hollywood is free to trash it entirely. This is vigilante justice for the 21st century."

The draft bill doesn't specify what techniques, such as viruses, worms, denial-of-service attacks, or domain name hijacking, would be permissible. It does say that a copyright-hacker should not delete files, but it limits the right of anyone subject to an intrusion to sue if files are accidentally erased.

Other critics have pointed out that because the proposal applies to any copyright holder, news organizations, photographers, and even the Church of Scientology would be granted new hacking authority.

According to the bill, the U.S. attorney general must be provided complete details about the "specific technologies the copyright holder intends to use to impair" the normal operation of the peer-to-peer network. Those details would remain secret and would never be divulged to the public.

The film and music industries already are developing tools to use against rogue file swapping, though they've remained mum on the details. The RIAA says its members have the right to use any "lawful and appropriate self-help measure."

Fritz Attaway, the MPAA's senior vice president for government relations, endorsed Berman's approach on Monday, stressing that law-abiding Internet users should not be concerned.

"No one in the motion picture industry has any interest in invading your computer or doing anything malicious with your files," Attaway said. "The idea is to make unauthorized file sharing sufficiently inconvenient or at least unsuccessful."