Meet Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Hollywood's new copyright ally

The incoming chairman of a key House of Representatives panel worked to ban Internet gambling and champion the Stop Online Piracy Act. And he hasn't given up.

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
5 min read

Incoming Judiciary chairman Bob Goodlatte on stage at a gala event in Washington D.C. organized by a pro-SOPA music industry group.
Incoming Judiciary chairman Bob Goodlatte on stage at a gala event in Washington D.C. in 2010 organized by a pro-SOPA music industry group. ASCAP

The outgoing chairman of a House of Representatives panel responsible for U.S. copyright law conceived the memorable Stop Online Piracy Act. Its next chairman happens to be even more enthusiastic about expanding digital copyright law.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte was elected head of the House Judiciary committee today, much to the dismay of advocacy groups that had doggedly worked to defeat SOPA and Protect IP a year ago.

The Virginia Republican has long been a steadfast ally of Hollywood and other large copyright holders, saying as recently as two months ago that "I remain committed to enacting strong copyright laws." In a press release last year, Goodlatte said he was supporting SOPA because the legislation -- which was withdrawn in the face of an unprecedented Internet protest -- would "protect American jobs" and prevent American babies from dying after drinking "counterfeit" baby formula.

"It's unfortunate to see another copyright maximalist taking over the chairmanship of the Judiciary committee, especially because Rep. Goodlatte has failed to show even a slight change of heart after the resounding defeat of SOPA," says Julie Samuels, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a vocal SOPA critic. "If anything he's doubled down, despite the bill's profound unpopularity."

In a local radio interview weeks after an explosion of criticism prompted outgoing Judiciary chairman Lamar Smith to abandon SOPA, Goodlatte defended the Hollywood-backed bill that he helped to shape. SOPA remains necessary to combat "the theft that's taking place on the Internet," he told WFIR Radio.

Incoming Judiciary chairman Bob Goodlatte receiving the 2011 President's Award from another pro-SOPA music industry group, which praised him for his "ongoing efforts to curb digital theft"
Bob Goodlatte, right, receiving the 2011 President's Award from another pro-SOPA music industry group, which praised him for his "ongoing efforts to curb digital theft" NMPA

Goodlatte is even more of a copyright hawk than Smith, who is losing his Judiciary chairmanship because of term limits. Goodlatte previously distributed a press release saying he "applauds" the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) and said it's "unrealistic" to think that current copyright law's notice-and-takedown provisions will continue to exist (he thinks they're too burdensome for copyright holders). He's also co-chairman of the Anti-Piracy Caucus, which boasts that copyright industries "generate more revenues than any other single manufacturing sector."

A Goodlatte spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment from CNET today.

The conservative Republican's support for digital piracy crackdowns is hardly new. In 1997, he was responsible for a federal law that makes peer-to-peer pirates liable for up to $250,000 in fines and three-year prison terms. His No Electronic Theft Act made not-for-profit piracy a federal crime; until then, it had been merely a civil offense.

SOPA and Protect IP temporarily vanished after millions of Americans joined an online protest in January against the bill, which included alerts on the home pages of Google.com and Craigslist.org, although Hollywood has indicated it has not given up. Both bills are designed to target so-called rogue Web sites by allowing the Justice Department to obtain an order to be served on search engines and Internet service providers that would force them to make the suspected piractical site effectively vanish, a procedure that has led to some First Amendment concerns.

Hollywood's (new) favorite Republican
During last winter's SOPA debate, outgoing Judiciary chairman Lamar Smith emerged as Hollywood's favorite Republican politician.

Now Goodlatte is poised to claim that title. The TV, movie, and music industries already were Goodlatte's top industry contributor during the 2012 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. (Since early last year, Goodlatte has been chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on intellectual property, which probably helped.)

It might seem like an odd relationship. Goodlatte is a social conservative who once voted for a federal investigation of a salacious scene in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, for a ban on Internet gambling, and for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. He reliably receives a zero percent rating on scorecards prepared by the ACLU and NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Goodlatte represents one of the more conservative corners of Virginia: the 6th District includes Lynchburg and Harrisonburg, and in 2008 opted for John McCain over Barack Obama by a 58 to 42 percent margin. It was home to evangelical pastor and televangelist Jerry Falwell, and was where Falwell founded Liberty University, the largest evangelical Christian school in the world.

The entertainment industry prefers Democratic politicians, of course. No less than 78 percent of political contributions from Hollywood went to Democrats in 2008, and DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and Warner Bros. Chairman Barry Meyer were Obama's top "bundlers" during this year's campaign.

But when Republicans are in power, the entertainment industry will woo the GOP. The SOPA-supporting National Music Publishers' Association, a copyright hawk that sued Google over allegedly infringing YouTube clips, honored Goodlatte with its President's Award last fall. The group lauded the Virginia congressman as someone who has "tirelessly championed the importance of intellectual property rights."

A year earlier, Goodlatte was a guest of honor at a gala in Washington, D.C. organized by another pro-SOPA group, the American Society of Composers, Artists and Publishers. It was held in advance of the group's Capitol Hill lobbying day, and featured entertainers including singer-songwriters Tracy Chapman and Jessi Alexander. Goodlatte was chosen to introduce musician J.D. Souther, who performed "You're Only Lonely" and "Heartache Tonight."

The Motion Picture Association of America, too, is effusive in praising Goodlatte's copyright expansion efforts. An MPAA blog post said "kudos to Chairman Goodlatte" for defending SOPA against criticism, and a press release said Hollywood "hails" Goodlatte for helping to craft the legislation in the first place. The Recording Industry Association of America, not to be left out, announced that it "salutes" his efforts.

Goodlatte's relationship with Silicon Valley companies that near-uniformly opposed SOPA hasn't always been this tempestuous. In the late 1990s, he visited the San Francisco area to tout legislation to protect Americans' electronic privacy by relaxing encryption export controls. He also supported an opt-out approach to federal spam legislation that was more First Amendment-protective, and did not sponsor an unsuccessful 2002 bill that would have let copyright owners legally hack into computers connected to peer-to-peer networks suspected of harboring pirated files.

More recently, he's sided with technology companies on some legislation. He supported a cybersecurity bill known as CISPA, which industry liked but privacy groups and local tea party groups loathed. And he sponsored a Netflix-backed bill to update 1980s-era federal privacy laws for the Internet.

Ryan Radia, associate director of technology studies at the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, said he was disappointed to see Goodlatte champion SOPA -- but thought he might be more tech-friendly than his predecessor in updating federal privacy law to require that police obtain warrants before reading Americans' e-mail or tracking their cell phone locations. The law is the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, or ECPA.

"Rep. Goodlatte strongly supported SOPA, including its extremely controversial DNS filtering provisions," Radia said. "But he did introduce an amendment (PDF) aimed at limiting SOPA's impact on foreign Web sites when only a portion of such a Web site was infringing. Hopefully Rep. Goodlatte will focus his energies on issues that advance Internet freedom, such as ECPA reform, rather than push policies that undermine it."