Studios push state laws

Film biz takes rights fight to states

WASHINGTON — The studios have quietly taken their anti-piracy battle to the statehouse. As has happened on the federal level, the move to toughen laws has drawn fire from consumer advocates and technology and hardware makers.

Generally, the proposed laws update existing theft-of-service statutes that bar the use of black boxes to receive cable, satellite and pay-per-view services without paying for them to include new distribution platforms such as the Internet.

Under the new laws, according to Motion Picture Assn. of America senior VP for state legislative affairs Vans Stevenson, someone who downloads a movie, then hacks the encryption and posts it on the Web will have committed a theft of service in addition to any copyright violation that would involve.

Under the Constitution, states do not have the power to enact copyright law, which is reserved for the federal government.

The MPAA has been quietly working on the state project for two years. The first such law was passed in Maryland in May 2001. Similar legislation has been passed in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, Illinois and Michigan. Bills are pending in Massachusetts, South Carolina, Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oregon, Georgia and Colorado.

Although Stevenson said that no effort had been made to hide what the MPAA was up to, the campaign only came to light among technology and hardware lobbyists in Washington last week.

Consumer Electronics Assn. president Gary Shapiro immediately blasted the MPAA campaign as unreasonable and anti-consumer. “It’s clear that Hollywood’s new strategy is to sneak around Congress and go to state legislatures, hoping to gain the anti-consumer restrictions that they have been repeatedly denied on the federal level,” he said.

CEA argued that language in the proposed laws could be read to ban many types of multipurpose devices, such as DVD recorders and digital video recorders, because they could be used for unlawful purposes in addition to their legal uses.

After a hastily arranged meeting Wednesday among CEA, MPAA and technology groups, however, the studio group agreed to add language to its model statute stipulating that a person must be acting “with the intent to defraud a communication service provider” in order to trigger the criminal sanctions.

MPAA agreed to seek amendments to the bills pending in nine states to include the new language, and CEA softened its opposition. “Our intention and goal is to address theft, and the new language doesn’t conflict with that,” Stevenson said.

The proposed laws could carry significant benefits for video retailers by adding a civil cause of action in addition to criminal sanctions. Under the model statute, “any person aggrieved” by a violation of the law “may bring a civil action in any court of competent jurisdiction.”

While the language is meant to give service providers the right to sue violators without having to wait for law enforcement authorities to act, as written the language could potentially embrace video retailers who have been victimized by black-box piracy.

Video Software Dealers Assn. president Bo Andersen said that while the group had only recently begun reviewing the proposed laws and has not yet taken a position on them, “we strongly support anti-piracy provisions, be they provisions that address cable, satellite or devices for making infringing copies.”

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