WASHINGTON — The Senate unanimously passed significant antipiracy legislation on Tuesday, reaffirming congressional intent to protect copyrighted material from new technological means of theft and infringement.
The Family Entertainment and Copyright Act (Feca), comprising four independent bills originally introduced in the previous Congress and reintroduced as a package just last week by lead sponsor Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), contains provisions aimed at curbing Internet piracy.
The main provisions lie in the Artists’ Rights and Theft Prevention (Art) Act, co-sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). The Art Act increases penalties for illegal distribution of copyrighted works before they are released. It also establishes a means by which copyright owners may be compensated for their losses. Most significantly, however, the Art Act would make it a federal crime to camcord a film as it screens in a theater — a measure the movie industry has sought for some time.
“This important bill gives us another valuable tool to fight movie theft,” said Motion Picture Assn. of America prexy Dan Glickman. “We are grateful to the Senate for passing it so swiftly and look forward to favorable action in the House,” he added.
“This important, bipartisan legislation will crack down on what has become a growth industry in this era of rapid technological development: the theft and distribution of copyrighted material,” Cornyn said. “I appreciate my colleagues moving this bill so quickly.”
The House version of Feca, introduced last week by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and so far supported by only two co-sponsors, has been referred to the House Administration and Judiciary committees, where it is still awaiting action.
“This is an important bill for the entertainment industry,” said Howard Gantman, a spokesman for Feinstein. “We hope the House moves on it as rapidly as possible,” he added.
“Congressman Smith expects the House to take up his measure in the very near future,” a spokesman for Smith said.
Feca also includes the Family Movie Act, the National Film Preservation Act and the Preservation of Orphan Works Act. In its previous incarnation, the Family Movie Act provoked a dispute with Hollywood studios. The legislation is aimed at permitting use of certain, specified technology to skip or mute content that may be objectionable to certain viewers when watching a DVD movie at home. Studios had claimed the act created the potential for copyright infringement.
Studios also objected because the technology could be used to skip over commercials inserted on DVD movies. An earlier version of the Family Movie Act barred use of the technology for that purpose. The current version of the bill makes no mention of such a ban, but when introducing the bill to the Senate, Hatch emphasized in his remarks that the omission should not be construed as allowing the technology to be used for skipping commercials.
The bill now also makes clear that the technology can be used so long as no fixed copy of the edited work is made.
The streamlining and clarifications of the Family Movie Act are part of an overall strategy to make all four bills in Feca less objectionable than previous versions, which failed to gain support in the 108th Congress. Tuesday’s swift and unanimous vote in the Senate suggests the strategy may prevail.
MGM played a lead role in lobbying for the Art Act last year, with topper Alex Yemenidjian personally visiting most members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in which the act originated.
Objections to filters
“We are delighted the Senate passed this legislation,” Yemenidjian told Daily Variety. “We hope the House will now pass it as quickly.” However, asked about the Family Movie Act, he replied, “None of us ever liked this because it edits existing copyrighted material. That’s a First Amendment issue. We may have to live with that, but I’m optimistic and very pleased.”
In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, the Video Software Dealers Assn. said:
“Enactment of legislation to make camcording in theaters a federal crime and to enhance the penalties for illegally disseminating movies over the Internet before they are available on homevideo are top legislative priorities for VSDA in this Congress. VSDA, therefore, is extremely pleased that the Senate acted quickly on this legislation, and we are anticipating expeditious House consideration as well.”
Reps from online peer-to-peer companies, some of which have been charged with facilitating copyright infringement, reacted very differently to the passage of the Feca package.
“Members of P2P United and any responsible company support intellectual property laws and their enforcement,” Adam Eisgrau, exec director for P2P United, told Daily Variety. “However, this package seems to be another point on a very distressingly long line of actions that ratchet up enforcements and penalties at times out of proportion with the law. To camcord a movie is wrong, certainly, but the penalty (of three years in jail) and the entitlement of theater ushers and owners to physically detain people makes you have to ask whether the copyright industry is having more sway than it should over the legislative process.”