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Justice Dept. pushes stiffer antipiracy laws

Department wants Congress to make it a crime to "attempt" copyright infringement. Also seeks stronger penalties.

WASHINGTON--The Bush administration announced on Thursday that it is lobbying for new laws that would bump up criminal penalties for pirates, expand criminal prosecutors' powers and punish anyone who "attempts" to infringe a copyright.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, speaking at an antipiracy summit here hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the Department of Justice recently submitted to Congress a "legislative package" aimed at toughening up intellectual-property enforcement amid evolving technology.

Alberto Gonzales
U.S. attorney general

According to the proposal (click for PDF) being circulated by the department, the measure would create a new crime called "attempting to infringe a copyright" and subject it to the same penalties as more serious infringement offenses.

The proposal would also permit authorities to seize and destroy pirated and counterfeit goods--with a special nod to music, movies and digitally obtained materials. Also on that list are any goods used to produce pirated or counterfeit material, as well as property obtained with proceeds from the sale of pirated or counterfeit material.

In addition to possibly serving prison time, those convicted of infringements would, under the new law, have to pay the copyright holder "and any other victim of the offense" a sum to compensate for out-of-pocket losses resulting from the crime.

The Justice Department is also seeking in its proposal greater latitude for prosecutors. Right now it's only possible to enforce against copyrights that are registered with the government. The new proposal would make that true only in civil cases, allowing prosecutors to go after pirates regardless of whether the copyright is registered.

"The burden of checking whether each work was registered would substantially slow down investigations and hinder the government's ability to prosecute these violations, especially infringement of works owned by small businesses that have not had the time or resources to register," the department wrote in a document explaining its proposal.

Overall, the changes are necessary because new technology is "encouraging large-scale criminal enterprises to get involved in intellectual-property theft," Gonzales said, adding that proceeds from the illicit businesses are used, "quite frankly, to fund terrorism activities."

The Business Software Alliance--whose president lamented at Thursday's event the $33 billion annual toll from piracy on the software industry--applauded the move, saying the group looked forward to reviewing the proposed legislation. The Recording Industry Association of America also issued a statement of support.

That sentiment was not shared by the digital rights group Public Knowledge, which said in a statement that it wished the department "had devoted some analysis as well to protecting the fair use rights of consumers."

"We are concerned that the Justice Department's proposal attempts to enforce copyright law in ways it has never before been enforced," the group wrote.

It was unclear Thursday how Congress would handle the proposal. A representative of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary said staffers had received and were reviewing the proposal.

Intellectual-property enforcement has been a recurring feature on the government's agenda this term, from increasing prison sentences for Net pirates to legislative fall-out in the wake of the Supreme Court's landmark file-sharing decision this summer to ongoing debate over the broadcast flag, a controversial device designed to prevent copying of digital content.

The Justice Department's hunger for increased antipiracy powers is hardly new. Last fall, it issued a report recommending other sweeping changes strongly favored by the entertainment industry.

CNET's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.