Peer-to-peer users who swap copyrighted files could be in danger of becoming federal felons, under a new proposal backed by Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Their legislation, introduced Wednesday, would punish an Internet user who shares even a single file without permission from a copyright holder with prison terms of up to five years and fines of up to $250,000.
Written by Michigan's John Conyers, the senior Democrat on the House judiciary committee, the Author, Consumer, and Computer Owner Protection and Security Act (ACCOPS) represents Congress' boldest attempt yet to shutter peer-to-peer networks, which the major record labels and movie studios view as a serious threat.
Currently, under a little-known 1997 law called the No Electronic Theft Act, many P2P users are technically already violating criminal laws. But if the ACCOPS bill were to succeed, prosecutors would not have to prove that a copyrighted file was repeatedly downloaded. Conyers' proposal would require them to prove only that the file was publicly accessible.
Other sponsors of ACCOPS are Reps. Howard Berman of California, Adam Schiff of California, Marty Meehan of Massachusetts, Robert Wexler of Florida and Anthony Weiner of New York. No Republican has supported the proposal.
One legal scholar viewed the legislation as an over-the-top measure.
"The business of expanding the criminal law so that making unauthorized personal copies of copyrighted works becomes a criminal violation is overreacting six ways from Tuesday," said Jessica Litman, who teaches copyright law at Wayne State University. "It's exceptional. But that does seem to be what the bill is trying to do."
File-swapping's fear factor
The threat of jail or fines would
stop many young people from downloading
movie and music files, a survey shows.
Litman said that, without ACCOPS, criminal copyright infringement currently is "hard to prove, because you (have) to prove that a copy was actually distributed."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group in San Francisco, also criticized the bill. "Jailing people for file sharing is not the answer," EFF lawyer Fred von Lohmann said. "Proponents of this bill are casting aside privacy, innovation and even our personal liberty as collateral damage in their war against file sharing."
ACCOPS would also do the following:
• Require that anyone distributing certain search software include a notice that "clearly and conspicuously" warns downloaders that the software may offer a security and privacy risk. The definition of search software is broad and includes any application that "enables third parties to store data" on a computer. Violators could face up to six months in prison.
• Punish anyone who knowingly provides false contact information, with intent to defraud, while registering a domain name. Penalties would include fines and up to five years in prison.
• Order the U.S. Department of Justice to share information with foreign governments to aid in tracking suspected copyright infringers. Information that can be shared includes "the technological means through which violations of the copyright law has occurred" and "the identity and location of the person who has committed such violation."
• Create a new copyright crime of recording a "motion picture as it is being performed or displayed in a motion picture theater."