House offers piracy tools, OKs film filters

WASHINGTON — The House handed the entertainment industry a mixed bag Tuesday when it passed legislation that gives federal prosecutors new tools to fight online piracy and makes camcording in theaters a federal crime, but also legalizes technology that filters sex and violence from movies.

Bill, which sailed through the House, authorizes $15 million for enforcement and relaxes standards prosecutors must meet to pursue criminal copyright infringement.

The Recording Industry Assn. of America has sued thousands of individuals accused of illegally swapping music online, but the Justice Dept. has had only limited authority to target the rampant illegal Internet file-sharing.

Current copyright law covers only those who willfully distribute $1,000 worth or more of pirated music or movies, but the value of a single track of music swapped online is difficult to determine, as is whether the work was distributed “willfully.”

Bill makes prosecutors’ job easier by making it a crime to swap 1,000 or more works with “reckless disregard” for the potential for piracy and carrying a sentence of as much as five years in prison.

ISPs protected

Measure also allows the DOJ to inform Internet service providers when subscribers are engaging in copyright infringement, but it protects the ISPs from liability for their subscribers’ alleged misconduct. Bill would also impose new penalties for distributing “pre-release copies” of songs and movies and outlaw camcorder use in movie theaters.

The RIAA and Motion Picture Assn. of America cheered passage of those provisions in the bill.

Bill “will provide law enforcement the necessary tools to go after the heart of film piracy: illegal camcording of movies and the online theft of films on peer-to-peer networks or on similar technologies,” MPAA topper Dan Glickman said in a statement.

The MPAA also tried to put a positive spin on provisions it has aggressively opposed that would legalize movie-filtering technologies, such as the one company ClearPlay manufactures and distributes, which can skip over smut in films. Studios and ClearPlay have spent months trying to settle a legal dispute over the technology, and filmmakers have accused Congress of meddling in a private legal matter by introducing the legislation.

Some concessions

Still, showbiz lobbyists manage to obtain some concessions in the latest version of the bill that passed the full House on Tuesday. As amended, measure would restrict the filtering or skipping of commercials and would prohibit technologies that can enhance or augment vulgar scenes in movies.

It would also outlaw any service that creates a fixed copy of the altered version of the film. Current technology allows viewers to automatically skip over the offensive content but not alter physical copies of the movies.

Several antipiracy measures passed the Senate in early summer, including one that cracks down on pre-release piracy and prohibits camcorders in theaters. Even though the Senate has yet to move any measure dealing with the movie filtering technology, industry lobbyists are bracing for a final House-Senate version that includes such language.

Overall, the MPAA is taking the good with the bad.

“This is a very important antipiracy bill,” said MPAA veep for technology and policy David Green. “It may not be perfect from our point of view, but it is a significant and helpful piece of legislation.”

In fact, Glickman touted the bill’s passage in the House during a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing exploring the effectiveness of media ratings systems.

Glickman’s debut

It was the first hearing in which Glickman has testified since assuming his role as MPAA prexy and CEO. But, because movie ratings were part of the topic du jour, Jack Valenti was also on hand to defend the system he created 36 years ago.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kans.), who convened the hearing, argued that the current rating system for movies, TV and videogames are “overwhelming and confusing” and leave parents fighting an uphill battle to protect their kids from sex and violence.

In response to testimony accusing Hollywood of capitalizing on sex and violence, Valenti pointed out that “Finding Nemo” is the highest-grossing film in recent years.

“Every movie is different,” he said. “We’re not dealing with Euclidean geometry … it’s all subjective.”

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