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Senate passes property rights bill

Act increases federal support to copyright laws

WASHINGTON — Congress has passed a major intellectual property rights bill strongly supported by showbiz after one of two controversial provisions was removed.

The full Senate passed on Friday the Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act of 2008, which increases federal resources for enforcing existing copyright laws and attempts to better facilitate U.S. IP policy.

The House had already passed its version of the bill and voted late Sunday to essentially approve the Senate’s version, which was very similar to its own. President Bush is expected to sign it.

Earlier in the week the Justice Dept. requested that a provision conferring authority on U.S. attorneys to prosecute civil copyright cases be removed (Daily Variety, Sept. 25). DOJ officials argued that the provision would essentially make taxpayers underwrite lawsuits brought by private copyright holders, who instead should bear the cost of such litigation.

Some lawmakers and consumer watchdog orgs agreed. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a statement Friday that striking the provision “eliminates a grant of federal power that was not asked for, or desired, by the Justice Dept. It would have had the effect of turning our federal law enforcement personnel into collections agents for industries that are more than capable of taking care of themselves.”

Separately, the Commerce Dept. had requested removal of a provision that called for the transfer of the office of the federal IP czar from Commerce into the White House. The Senate did not grant that request.

The intent of that provision is to raise federal concern about piracy to the highest level of government, but Commerce officials had argued that it would interfere with interagency coordination, planning and authority.

Rick Cotton, NBC Universal general counsel and chair of the multi-industry Coalition Against Counterfeiting and Piracy, told Daily Variety that passage of the bill is “a huge victory for American workers in every sector driven by innovation and creativity, and that’s America’s future.” As for the provision that was stripped out, Cotton said: “There were certainly voices that felt civil enforcement would have given prosecutors another arrow for their quivers, but I don’t think (loss of the provision) detracts from the importance and many other parts of the bill.”

Patrick Ross, exec director of the Copyright Alliance, a consortium of major corporate entities including the MPAA and all its member companies, said the tougher copyright enforcement would pay dividends for the economy.

“For every tax dollar spent on increased intellectual property enforcement as a result of (this bill), at least three new dollars in federal taxes would be collected,” Ross said.

Consumer watchdog group Public Knowledge criticized the bill and praised Wyden for having led the effort to strip out the provision conferring new prosecutorial authority on the Justice Dept.

“The bill only adds more imbalance to a copyright law that favors large media companies,” Public Knowledge prexy Gigi B. Sohn said in a statement. “At a time when the entire digital world is going to less restrictive distribution models, and when the courts are aghast at the outlandish damages being inflicted on consumers in copyright cases, this bill goes entirely in the wrong direction.”

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