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‘Safe harbor’ bill takes aim at pirates

Reg would allow showbiz to hack into copyright abusers

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) took the wraps off a controversial bill Thursday that would slap an official stamp of approval on the showbiz battle to block illegal peer-to-peer online file-swapping networks.

Co-sponsored by Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), and also backed by Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), Berman’s bill would create a legal “safe harbor,” protecting copyright holders from legal retribution as they take steps to hack online systems they believe are abusing their copyrights.

While the still-unnamed bill doesn’t point to any specific techniques, it could potentially clear the way for film studios and record labels to block access to a network perceived to be a threat, overwhelm it with fake files (a process known as “spoofing”), or even unleash viruslike software to disable it entirely.

That possibility has raised the hackles of many in the technology community, who worry that Berman is clearing the way for entertainment congloms — many of which do business in his Los Angeles district — to decimate peer-to-peer technology and potentially do significant harm to individual users in the process.

“What he’s doing is legalizing online copyright vigilantism,” said Ellen A. Stroud, government affairs rep for peer-to-peer software developer Streamcast. “Consumers are saying that they want to connect directly and share information; peer-to-peer allows them to do that, and we will continue to provide that technology.”

But Berman insists his bill comes with restrictions to protect Web users and the legitimate online business community from becoming collateral damage in big media’s war on cyber-piracy.

The legislation, he argued, contains specific restrictions against any copyright holder planting viruses directly onto a user’s computer, or reaching in to erase files from hard drives. And if a company abuses the safe harbor, the bill offers a provision allowing users to sue for damages.

“Because its scope is limited to unauthorized distribution, display, performance or reproduction of copyrighted works on publicly accessible P2P systems, the legislation only authorizes self-help measures taken to deal with clear copyright infringements,” Berman said in Capitol Hill testimony.

The leadership of the entertainment biz gave the Berman-Coble measure a thumbs-up, but not entirely without reservation.

“We’re pleased that a bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Howard Berman and Howard Coble, wants to curb the explosion of Internet piracy,” Motion Picture Assn. of America topper Jack Valenti said. “However, there are aspects of the bill we believe need changing as it moves through the legislative process.”

Specifically, the MPAA would like to see the legislation’s focus expanded to include other methods of sharing pirated content over the Internet beyond peer-to-peer technology — such as online chatrooms and instant-messaging software.

Recording Industry Assn. of America chief Hilary Rosen was less reserved in her praise of the initiative.

“The current landscape for online music is dangerously one-sided, with the peer-to-peer pirates enjoying an unfair advantage” Rosen said. “It makes sense to clarify existing laws to ensure that copyright owners — those who actually take the time and effort to create an artistic work — are at least able to defend their works from mass piracy.”

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