Ashcroft’s army

Justice Dept. fires up antipiracy ops

WASHINGTON — Taking several pages from the country’s wars on drugs and terrorism, the Justice Dept. is launching an initiative in its battle against criminal piracy in this country and abroad.

And if Attorney General John Ashcroft has his way, next year Congress will approve legislation that criminalizes the possession of counterfeit goods with the intention of selling or trafficking them and amend the copyright statute to make attempted piracy a crime whether or not an individual is successful.

During a visit to Los Angeles today, Ashcroft will unveil a landmark antipiracy initiative aimed at giving the federal government sweeping powers to crack down on organized crime rings as well as individuals who engage in widespread intellectual property theft.

Ashcroft will join U.S. Attorney for Los Angeles Debra Yang to announce the adoption of 55 pages of recommendations by the DOJ’s Task Force on Intellectual Property.

Among a dozen changes to current criminal enforcement of intellectual property law, the initiative will add five antipiracy offices around the country, according to a copy of the task force report, which will be released to the public today.

Justice will add units in Nashville, one of the world’s most important outposts in the recording industry, as well as D.C.; Orlando, Fla.; Pittsburgh; and Sacramento.

The offices, called Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property (or Chip) Units, will supplement the 13 existing U.S. Attorney’s offices and some 60 prosecutors devoted to fighting piracy.

Effort will also beef up existing Chip units located in Los Angeles and San Jose, two hotbeds of intellectual property theft, with several new prosecutors, and it will designate a Chip coordinator in every federal prosecutor’s office in the nation.

To support the aggressive crackdown, Ashcroft is calling on Congress to approve broad new powers for law enforcement to go after pirates. Many of the new powers are familiar, plucked from the federal government’s unique authority to pursue drug traffickers, and to a lesser extent, from the controversial Patriot Act, which gave law enforcement more authority to combat terrorism.

According to the report, other legislative goals include granting fresh authority to use wiretaps to investigate intellectual property crimes; criminalizing the importation and exportation of counterfeit goods and unauthorized copies of copyrighted works; assigning a designated retail value to pre-release copyrighted works; and permitting the extradition of individuals accused of intellectual property crimes as long as they are violations in the U.S. as well as the other nation involved.

“The attorney general recognizes that intellectual property theft endangers our country’s economic and national security, and that’s why he’s so supportive of this effort,” said David Israelite, Ashcroft’s deputy chief of staff, who spearheaded the task force.

After an 11 a.m. press conference with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, Ashcroft will meet privately with studio execs and Motion Picture Assn. of America topper Dan Glickman to discuss the initiative.

Last week Israelite previewed the announcement during a conference call with Recording Industry Assn. of America chieftain Mitch Bainwol and several music label execs.

The relationship between the Republicans in Washington (including the Bush administration) and Hollywood has been chilly at best. Just last week House Republicans dealt the movie biz a serious blow by refusing to include a tax cut for the industry — potentially worth up to $5 billion over the next decade — in a massive corporate tax bill.

Political insiders interpreted the legislative defeat as retribution for the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s hiring of Dan Glickman, a Democrat, to replace retiring Jack Valenti.

No such rift has occurred with the music industry. Mitch Bainwol was a savvy GOP political operative before the music labels tapped him to head the RIAA.

“The recording industry has been a priority in this effort because we believe they’ve been hit hardest by intellectual property theft and we think they’ve done the most to help themselves,” Israelite added. “We have a very good working relationship with the leadership of the recording industry with Mitch Bainwol at the helm.”

A felony to swap a lot

Justice’s aggressive stance, however, is not designed to help the industry pursue civil lawsuits against thousands of individuals including college students, although the department reserves the right to pursue criminal action against them. The task force supports legislation pending in Congress right now that would make it a felony to swap 1,000 songs online without copyright owners’ permission.

“I’m not going to say we’re never going to go after individuals and college kids,” Israelite said. “Everyone should know that the federal government is getting more aggressive against the theft of intellectual property.”

Civil liberty orgs didn’t completely condemn the effort, although some expressed serious concerns about how the government will wield its antipiracy powers.

“I don’t think the DOJ is going to start throwing college kids (who illegally swap music online) in prison, but it gives DOJ leverage over millions of Americans,” said Fred von Lohmann, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit cyber-liberties org. “As a group devoted to civil liberties, we’re always concerned about federal investigators’ ability to lean on you.”