Senate introduces online piracy legislation

Cheered on by the MPAA and RIAA, legislation aimed at shutting down foreign and domestic websites that provide access to pirated films, TV shows, music content and counterfeit goods was introduced in the Senate on Monday by a bipartisan group of lawmakers. The measure could be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee as early as this week.

Dubbed the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act, the bill would enable the Justice Department to track and shut down websites that provide access to unauthorized downloads, streaming or sale of copyrighted content and counterfeit goods. Its introduction follows the panel’s June oversight hearing with the Obama administration’s “copyright czar,” Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator Victoria Espinel.

For websites located outside the U.S., the Justice Dept. could ask a Washington, D.C., federal court for an injunction that would prevent domain registrars from resolving to an infringing domain name’s Internet protocol address. Such authority has been sought for several years by the studios and the recording industry.

The bill was immediately hailed by the MPAA. “We’re very pleased to join a great number of creators and workers from throughout the motion picture and television industry in support today of this important legislation to combat efforts to steal the lifeblood of one of our nation’s most important industries,” said the MPAA’s interim CEO Bob Pisano.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said the bill “will protect the investment American companies make in developing brands and creating content and will protect the jobs associated with those investments.” Ranking member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) called the bill “critical to our continued fight against online piracy and counterfeiting.”

The measure would give the Justice Dept. an expedited process for cracking down on websites dedicated to making infringing goods and services available. It would also authorize the department to file civil actions against any domain name being used to traffic infringing material. Federal courts would be given final authority over the legal actions, while website owners and operators would be permitted to appeal the government actions.

Pisano said the MPAA looks forward to working with Congress to help strengthen the bill, which he said provides “a major step forward” in combating the growing threats from the illegal distribution of copyrighted works.

Mitch Bainwol, CEO of the Recording Industry Assn. of America, called it “a welcome first step toward cutting off the financial lifeline that sustains these illegal operations and threatens the livelihoods of countless members of the American music community.”

The bill was met with some skepticism from consumer groups, who have long been wary that industry efforts to combat piracy would overreach.

Sherwin Sy, deputy legal director of Public Knowledge, said that the legislation was a “good-faith effort to combat infringement.”

But at the same time, there are concerns that the bill “would establish an Internet black list of sites that the Justice Department thinks are ‘pirate’ sites but against which it hasn’t taken action,” Sy said. “Putting an innocent site on this list could seriously harm the business of legitimate website operators. The remedies in the bill for those guilty until they prove themselves innocent are inadequate.

Sy also raised questions about what he termed “vague definitions of what constitutes an infringing site and of the level of proof needed.” He noted that the bill would have allowed entertainment companies “to throttle YouTube at the beginning of its creation by alleging piracy,” leaving the fledgling company with no way to defend itself.

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