Justice Dept. wants new antipiracy powers

Government report takes aim at file swapping and says the FBI needs more money, wiretapping permission and a lot more laws.

Declan McCullagh
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.
3 min read
The U.S. Justice Department recommended a sweeping transformation of the nation's intellectual-property laws, saying peer-to-peer piracy is a "widespread" problem that can be addressed only through more spending, more FBI agents and more power for prosecutors.

In an extensive report released Tuesday, senior department officials endorsed a pair of controversial copyright bills strongly favored by the entertainment industry that would criminalize "passive sharing" on file-swapping networks and permit lawsuits against companies that sell products that "induce" copyright infringement.

"The department is prepared to build the strongest, most aggressive legal assault against intellectual-property crime in our nation's history," Attorney General John Ashcroft, who created the task force in March, said at a press conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday afternoon.

In an example of the Justice Department's hunger for new copyright-related police powers, the report asks Congress to introduce legislation that would permit wiretaps to be used in investigating serious intellectual-property offenses and that would create a new crime of the "importation" of pirated products. It also suggests stationing FBI agents and prosecutors in Hong Kong and Budapest, Hungary, to aid local officials and "develop training programs on intellectual-property enforcement."

The Recording Industry Association of America applauded the report, saying that "for those who work in the community of record labels, songwriters and artists, the commitment of focus, energy and resources outlined in this report is music to our ears." The Motion Picture Association of America joined the applause, thanking the Justice Department for "defending our country's economy against pernicious IP pirates."

Phil Corwin, a lobbyist for Sharman Networks, distributor of the popular Kazaa file-sharing software, said the Justice Department seems "to be endorsing a war on copyright infringement modeled in large part on the war on drugs. That should invite very close scrutiny of the recommendations."

"They could be proposing here the greatest mass criminalization of conduct by otherwise law-abiding citizens since Prohibition," Corwin said. "Congress should think long and hard before they treat noncommercial infringement by ordinary citizens...the same as prosecutions of organized crime."

Tuesday's report was not focused exclusively on Internet piracy: It also included recommendations about responses to trademark infringements, trade secret violations and fake pharmaceuticals. But the Internet-related bills it endorses are at the heart of the ongoing political battle pitting Hollywood and the music industry against the computer industry, "fair use" advocates and librarians.

By backing the Piracy Deterrence and Education Act--which criminalizes common uses of file-swapping products--and the Induce Act, the report lends the authority and prestige of the nation's largest law enforcement agency to the pitched battles taking place in Congress this year. While the Induce Act enjoys support from the MPAA and RIAA, it has been savaged by technology firms including CNET Networks (publisher of News.com), BellSouth, EarthLink, Google, MCI, RadioShack, Panasonic, Red Hat, Sun Microsystems, Verizon Communications and Yahoo.

The report also opposes legislative efforts to amend the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which broadly restricts hardware or software that can "circumvent" copy protection mechanisms. The 1998 law should stay intact, the Justice Department says, arguing that the law should prevent "deliberate and unauthorized circumvention."

Among the report's authors: Valerie Caproni, the FBI's general counsel; Kevin Ryan, the U.S. Attorney for Northern California; and no fewer than five assistant attorneys general at the Justice Department.

In an unusual twist, one section of the report that was being considered in August seems to have vanished in the final draft.

Hewitt Pate, assistant attorney general for antitrust and a task force member, indicated at a conference in Aspen, Colo., that the report would oppose a bill to let the Justice Department sue pirates in civil court. But no discussion of the so-called Pirate Act--approved by the Senate in June--appears in the final report.