Pols support legislation to crack down on piracy

Senate and House leaders made a bipartisan show of support for expected legislation to crack down on so-called rogue websites that traffic in pirated content.

Such a bill would be the most significant effort of this Congress to attack online copyright infringement and is a centerpiece of Hollywood’s lobbying efforts this year.

A Capitol Hill news conference on Monday was intended to show that attacking piracy is a priority in both parties, with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and his counterpart in the House, Sen. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), casting online copyright infringement as an urgent issue that is costing the economy jobs and threatening innovation. Smith said that they are drafting a bill that could be introduced “in the next few weeks,” and Leahy said Senate legislation would be introduced “soon.”

A previous bill, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last year but failed to make it to the floor, was aimed at increasing the government’s ability to seize domain names of sites devoted to selling infringing content like movies, TV shows and music. Another goal of the bill was to cut off the money flow, with provisions to get payment processors to halt or refuse service for sites that engage in copyright theft.

Hollywood lobbyists hope the legislation also will help address the vexing problem of how to fight piracy originating in other countries, like China and Russia, where it has been tough to secure cooperation from governments to turn their attention prosecute rampant infringement.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) called it an “international challenge” and said, “We need to find new ways to address this problem.”

Although the initial legislation passed unanimously in the Judiciary Committee, the vocal opponents have included Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who raised concerns that the bill would be too heavy-handed and would stifle free speech. Some consumer groups have objected, saying the bill would vest too much power in the government to seize domain names; they suggest that legitimate sites could be threatened if authorities are given too broad a mandate.

But Leahy, in the news conference, said that it’s possible to go after rogue sites and still protect the First Amendment. He also challenged the notion that the legislation would be an attempt by powerful entertainment and media lobbies to protect dying business models, saying, “They shouldn’t have to compete against stolen property. They shouldn’t have to compete against criminals.”

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, said that under any legislation “due process and First Amendment rights would have to be carefully observed.” Yet he also said that under consideration in the House version is a provision that could stoke some consternation: the right to private action, allowing studios and other copyright owners to pursue lawsuits against rogue sites or “those that allow them to work,” like payment processors, Internet service providers and search engines.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition and the Internet, said he wanted to take a “broader look” at “other types of criminal infringement,” not just rogue sites. He, too, talked of finding a balance. “One of the problems is not enough attention is paid to it now,” he said afterward. “But you can go the other way too.”

The House will hold another hearing on rogue sites on Wednesday. Also joining the lawmakers were reps from labor and business, including Paul Almeida of the AFL-CIO and Peter Bragdon of Columbia Sportswear.

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