IP Piracy Bill Passes Through US Congress

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The U.S. House of Representatives on Sunday passed a bill that would significantly increase penalties for copyright infringement and create a new office of intellectual-property enforcement coordinator in the White House.

The bill, which passed the U.S. Senate by unanimous consent on Friday, was stripped of one of its most controversial provisions, which would allow the U.S. Department of Justice to prosecute civil lawsuits on behalf of copyright owners. The DOJ, in a letter to lawmakers last week, objected to that provision, saying it "could result in Department of Justice prosecutors serving as pro bono lawyers for private copyright holders regardless of their resources."

The legislation, called the Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property, or PRO-IP, Act, now goes to President George Bush for his signature. But digital rights advocates including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge have opposed the bill, saying it shifts the balance of copyright law away from consumer rights and toward protections for large copyright holders such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

"The bill only adds more imbalance to a copyright law that favors large media companies," Gigi Sohn, Public Knowledge's president, said in an e-mail. "At a time when the entire digital world is going to less restrictive distribution models, and when the courts are aghast at the outlandish damages being inflicted on consumers in copyright cases, this bill goes entirely in the wrong direction."

Public Knowledge has called the October 2007 jury verdict against Minnesota resident Jammie Thomas, awarding the RIAA US$222,000, an excessive award. Thomas was accused of sharing 24 songs on a P-to-P (peer-to-peer) network. Last week, a U.S. judge awarded Thomas a new trial, saying the award was "wholly disproportionate" to the damages the RIAA incurred.

If Bush signs the PRO-IP Act, the law would increase the forfeiture penalties for copyright offenses. It would allow courts, in civil cases, to seize "any property used, or intended to be used, in any manner or part" for copyright offenses.

That provision could mean that a wide range of devices and equipment will be seized, said Sherwin Siy, staff attorney at Public Knowledge. Earlier versions of the bill required that equipment be substantially connected to copyright infringement, but the bill that passed in recent days does not, he wrote on the Public Knowledge blog.

"Any number of multipurpose devices -- even those not owned by the infringer -- could get caught up in the net of forfeiture penalties," Siy wrote.

The bill allows courts to impound business records associated with an alleged infringement, pending trial. It would also increase funding for local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to help with intellectual property investigations, as well as creating the new intellectual-property coordinator position at the White House.

Sohn called for Congress to look in a holistic way at copyright law "and write legislation that recognizes the reality of the situation and the reality that consumers have rights also." She said she was pleased that the bill was stripped of its provision to allow the DOJ to file civil lawsuits on behalf of copyright holders.

"This provision was a total waste of the taxpayers' money," Sohn said.

The RIAA and the Business Software Alliance, a trade group representing large software vendors, praised the passage of the bill.

"This bill truly is music to the ears of all those who care about strengthening American creativity and jobs," Mitch Bainwol, RIAA's chairman and CEO, said in a statement. "At a critical economic juncture, this bipartisan legislation provides enhanced protection for an important asset that helps lead our global competitiveness."

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