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Antipiracy bills delayed in Congress

Move follows storm of protest

Hollywood-backed antipiracy legislation stalled on Capitol Hill on Friday as Senate and House versions were delayed so that major changes could be made to the bills.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he’s postponing a vote on a Senate version of the antipiracy legislation after a storm of protest and the defection of a number of supporters made it doubtful that he had the votes to get the bill to the floor on Tuesday. In the House, Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said the committee would postpone consideration of the Stop Online Piracy Act until there is wider agreement on a solution. He said that after hearing from critics, “It is clear that we need to revisit the approach on how best to address the problem of foreign thieves that steal and sell American inventions and products.”

Supporters of the legislation, including Hollywood studios, guilds and the record industry, still sounded a bit shell-shocked by the sudden turn of events, in which bills that appeared headed to passage with bipartisan majorities unraveled over the past week. On Wednesday, an Internet blackout and protest generated 2.2 million tweets mentioning “SOPA” and 3 million emails to Congress, according to Fight for the Future, one of the organizers of opposition to the bills. Lawmakers began to abandon the legislation, and on Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the bill had to be shelved and rethought.

It’s unclear what the way forward for the legislation will be. Reid talked of reaching a compromise “in the coming weeks,” while Smith left no timeline and seemed to indicate that any new approach would be akin to starting over again. Although MPAA chairman Chris Dodd suggested in an interview with the New York Times that the White House could play a role in bringing all sides together, White House spokesman Jay Carney signaled that the administration was lukewarm to the idea of leading a summit on piracy and that the issue is better left to legislators.

Meanwhile, in what amounted to a victory lap of sorts, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) held a conference call with another opponent of the legislation, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). Wyden opposed the legislation from the beginning, after an early version passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously in September 2010.

“It is clear to me that in an historic way, the American people spoke using the latest technology,” Wyden said.

He and Moran talked up an alternative piece of legislation, called the Open Act, which would target the money sources of piracy by cutting off support from ad networks and payment processors. But the studio and record industry lobbies say the bill would be cumbersome because it would vest authority in the International Trade Commission to issue rulings in piracy cases.

The industry is still stinging. In a statement, Dodd said, “As a consequence of failing to act, there will continue to be a safe haven for foreign thieves; American jobs will continue to be lost; and consumers will continue to be exposed to fraudulent and dangerous products peddled by foreign criminals.”

RIAA chairman Cary Sherman said, “This issue is too important, too vital to our economy, to let misleading demagoguery have a veto over meaningful reforms. Everyone, ever intermediary in the Internet ecosystem, has a role to play and a responsibility to help.”

More direct was Rupert Murdoch, who tweeted: “Mega loads! One week earlier and things would be different. Even some solons may have recovered their courage.”

A coalition of Hollywood guilds and unions, including SAG, the DGA and IATSE, also issued a statement decrying the rhetoric. In fact, at points during the week, it seemed as if industry supporters weren’t just trying to defend the legislation but to push back against the idea that Hollywood would somehow be trying to advance an agenda at the expense of free speech.

“We hope a new tone can be set and it is not one that turns our advocacy for this legislation into an implication that we promote censorship. Our commitment to the First Amendment is decades old and long established,” the guilds and unions said in the statement. “It is a matter of public record before ‘Internet’ was part of anyone’s vocabulary.”

The difficulty for the industry will be forging legislation during an election year. Last fall, the bills became that rare piece of legislation that lawmakers from both parties could champion for protecting jobs when so much else on Capitol Hill was caught in gridlock. But the velocity of opposition has obviously shown that even complex copyright legislation can become polarizing in the Internet era.

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) talked of sending a bill to Obama’s desk this year but said that the “day will come when the senators who forced this move will look back and realize they made a knee-jerk reaction to a monumental problem.

“Somewhere in China today, in Russia today, and in many other countries that do not respect American intellectual property, criminals who do nothing but peddle in counterfeit products and stolen American content are smugly watching how the United States Senate decided it was not even worth debating how to stop the overseas criminals from draining our economy.”

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