Move grants gov't more power to combat copyright infringement

Lawmakers on Thursday gave the greenlight to legislation hailed by Hollywood as a significant effort to shut down websites worldwide that traffic in pirated content.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to expand the government’s ability to shut down sites devoted to selling or distributing unauthorized copyrighted material.

The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act, introduced by Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), had a bipartisan list of 17 co-sponsors, so its clearance through the committee was not in doubt.

The bill would enable the Justice Dept. to track and shut down websites that provide access to unauthorized downloads, streaming or the sale of pirated content. The legislation authorizes the Justice Dept. to file an “in rem” civil action against a domain name, and then seek a preliminary order from the court that the domain name is being used to traffic in infringing material. Supporters say this type of action is needed to combat piracy on sites outside the U.S.

With Congress in lame-duck session, it will be difficult for a bill to get to President Obama’s desk before the end of the year.

Attention will be focused on the House Judiciary Committee introducing a similar bill, and supporters are hopeful that the unanimous vote will give momentum for action even as Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) takes over the chairmanship from Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) in the next Congress.

Howard Gantman, spokesman for the Motion Picture Assn. of America, called the Judiciary Committee’s action “a major step forward.”

Mitch Bainwol, chairman and CEO of the Recording Industry Assn. of America, said in a statement that “in a world where hackers and copyright thieves are able to take down websites, rip off American consumers and rake in profits operating rogue businesses built on the backs of the American creative community, the committee has taken a strong step toward fostering a more safe and secure online experience for consumers.”

The bill also has the support of Hollywood’s major guilds and unions.

Critics charged that the bill gave the federal government too broad of powers to shut down sites, but reps for Leahy noted that it includes provisions that allow the domain name owner or site operator to petition the court to lift an order, and gives the federal court the final say over whether a site should be cut off from supportive services.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more