Senators introduce bill to quash bootlegged content

Hollywood is pinning its hopes on new federal legislation introduced Thursday aimed at greatly curbing online piracy, with a focus on choking off support for foreign sites dedicated to selling unauthorized movies, TV shows and music.

One Senate bill, the Preventing Real Online Threats of Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act, or PROTECT IP Act, would authorize the Justice Dept. to seek a court order directing third-parties – search engines, payment processors, advertising networks and Internet providers – to cease providing transactions and support to overseas sites engaged in online infringement. The legislation was introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, along with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Another bill, introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), would make the illegal streaming of copyrighted works a felony, bringing it in line with the punishment for peer-to-peer downloading.

Similar legislation is expected to be introduced soon in the House.

“The PROTECT IP Act targets the most egregious actors, and is an important first step to putting a stop to online piracy and sale of counterfeit goods,” Leahy said.

What is especially notable about the bill is that it includes search engines. Google came under fire in a recent congressional hearing for the way that infringing sites received prominent listing in search results.

The bills drew widespread praise from industry groups, guilds and content creators, frustrated that current law doesn’t enable them to act quickly to halt the spread and sale of infringing content, particularly from so-called “rogue” websites that operate overseas.

A coalition of industry groups, including the Motion Picture Assn. of America, the National Assn. of Theater Owners and the Independent Film and Television Alliance, said in a statement that the legislation will help crack down on foreign websites “operating outside of U.S. law” because they would “no longer be allowed to exploit U.S. registrars, registries, Internet service providers,

payment processors, search engines and ad placement services to sustain their illicit online businesses.”

Although the bills are expected to have widespread support on both sides of the aisle, digital rights groups have been somewhat circumspect.

Authors of the PROTECT IP Act say they have narrowed the scope of their legislation from a similar version introduced last year, even though it passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously. But it stalled before getting to the Senate floor, in part because of opposition from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), who expressed concern that even legal sites would face shutdown because it was too broad in scope.

The new bill defines a targeted site as one “dedicated to infringing activities” with “no significant use other than engaging in, facilitating or enabling” the sale or distribution of unauthorized works.

The new legislation removes a provision that would have streamlined the process so the Justice Dept. could seek domestic domain names – something critics saw as duplicative. In recent years, customs officials initiated a series of crackdowns that forced the shutdown of more than 100 sites that traffic heavily in infringed works.

Under the proposed law, copyright holders also would be given a “right of action” to seek a court order against a domain name registrant, owner or domain name that is infringing on their copyrights, but they will be limited to choking off the flow of money from payment processors and ad services.

David Sohn, senior policy counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, wrote in a blog post that the legislation “appears to do a much better job of tailoring its definitions to target true bad actors.”

But he still has concerns over some of its provisions, including ones that could require that Internet providers block domain names.

He said it “raises tricky cybersecurity questions and would set a dangerous international precedent for using the domain name system to try to impose domestic laws on foreign Internet activity.” He also is concerned that the law’s definition of a search engine – that of “information location tools” – is too broad.

A collection of labor groups, including AFM, AFTRA, THE DGA, IATSE, SAG and teamsters, nevertheless pushed back against free speech concerns, saying that it “undeniably protects creators of speech by combating its theft.”

Mitch Bainwol, chairman and CEO of the Recording Industry Assn. of America, said that the legislation represented a “common-sense approach” to taking action against foreign sites,

“American music is repeatedly stolen online every day, yet current laws have not kept pace with criminal enterprises that set up websites overseas to escape accountability,” he said in a statement. “The result for the music community is thousands of lost jobs and fewer opportunities for aspiring musicians.”

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