Colo. piracy law veto a setback for MPAA

Opponents said bill would stifle high-tech innovation

This article was corrected on May 23, 2003.

WASHINGTON — The studios suffered their first loss this week in a campaign to extend state laws against cable and satellite TV theft to cover new forms of electronic distribution such as the Internet.

On Wednesday, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens vetoed an MPAA-backed bill that would have expanded the definition of “communications services” covered by those laws and banned the use of many types of devices that could be used to steal the services.

Although most states already outlaw the use of black boxes to steal cable, satellite and pay-per-view services, the MPAA-backed bills would extend those laws to cover unauthorized reception of services that might be provided on an a la carte rather than a subscription basis, such as the recently launched Movielink service that offers video-on-demand over the Internet.

“What the bills say is if you download a movie from Movielink, that’s the service,” said MPAA senior VP of state legislative affairs Vans Stevenson Stevenson. “If you download it without paying for it, or hack it and distribute it, you’ve committed a theft of service,” in addition to any copyright infringement that may be involved.

Opponents, however, claim the language of the bills is too broad because it could outlaw devices that may have legitimate uses.

Org blasts law

“Virtually anything you might connect to any wire that you pay for would be swept up” by these laws, the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in an analysis of the proposed laws published on its Web site. “This would regulate what people who legitimately pay for service are allowed to connect to the home entertainment centers in their own living rooms. …Did your cable company ‘expressly authorize’ you to attach a TiVo?”

The Colorado measure had overwhelming support in the state legislature, passing the Senate by a vote of 32-3 and the House by 64-1. But opponents of the bill, who claim it could stifle innovation, launched a last ditch lobbying effort aimed at persuading Owens to strike down the measure.

On May 14, the Rocky Mountain News ran an editorial sharply critical of the bill and urged Owens to veto it.

In his veto message to the legislature, Owens said, “Although the drafters intended that the bill would only be used to prosecute the new thieves and pirates of the digital age, HB 03-1303 could also stifle legal activity by entities all along the high-tech spectrum. …. I respectfully urge the legislature to revisit this issue in the next session and to be more careful in drafting a bill that adds protections that are rightfully needed but does not paint a broad brush stroke where only a tight line is needed.”

Bill passed in six states

The MPAA’s campaign in the states began quietly in 2001, and bills similar to the Colorado measure have been enacted in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, Illinois, Arkansas.

Since March, however, the effort has garnered national headlines and has attracted widespread opposition from technology advocates and online civil liberties groups.

The EFF, which has battled the MPAA on many copyright fronts, praised Owens’ veto. “These bills are bad for innovation, bad for competition and bad for consumers,” EFF attorney Fred von Lohmann said. “These MPAA-sponsored bills represent the worst kind of special interest legislation, sacrificing the public interest in favor of the self-serving interests of one industry.”

The Colorado veto could galvanize further opposition in states where similar bills are pending, including Massachussets, Florida, South Carolina, Texas, Oregon, Georgia.

MPAA officials said they plan to forge ahead with their campaign, however. “We will come back next year (in Colorado), and we’re still very hopeful and confident that we will enact this bill into law,” said the MPAA’s Stevenson. “It’s unfortunate that when the facts of this debate failed to support their cause, opponents of the bill resorted to untruths and ‘sky is falling’ scare tactics. This is a textbook example of how an organized minority can distort the facts in their efforts to make stealing OK.”