RealTime IT News

Anti-Piracy P2P Bill Scrutinized

A House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the controversial anti-piracy file sharing bill ended Thursday with an ominous warning from Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-WI) that file-sharing is inherently illegal and needs to be stopped.

"It is my belief that many people who download (files) commit piracy," Sensenbrenner said. "It is larceny. Most of those will not go into a hardware store and steal a saw or a hammer. Am I missing something when I say it comes under the larceny heading? I'm concerned about this.

As expected, the hearings centered around the sticky issue of what constitutes hacking into a consumer's PC to find copyright-protected files and put the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) at odds with written testimony from the head of the Morpheus file-sharing network Steve Griffin.

Griffin, who hosted a round-table discussion immediately after Thursday's hearing to spread the P2P gospel, argued that proposals before the Committee "do not have the consumer or the majority of content creators in mind and are either reasonable nor workable."

Griffin said the focus of the bill -- sponsored by Reps. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), and Howard Coble (R-N.C.), Lamar Smith (R-TX), and Robert Wexler (D-FL) -- unfairly puts the onus on technology providers to block the sharing of copyrighted material.

"We make the software that lets consumers connect with each other. The (music) studios and labels want to control how technology is created to benefit their old, stale business models," Griffin added.

But proponents of the new law argue that firmer steps need to be taken to ensure content creators and owners receive compensation when files are distributed via peer-to-peer networks.

The bill seeks to allow songwriters, photographers, film producers, karaoke tape makers and other copyright owners to take the law into their own hands and access a user's PC without facing legal repercussions.

The main focus of the bill is a safe harbor from liability under state or federal law when a copyright owner tries to prevent the unauthorized distribution of his or her work when it is publicly available on a P2P network.

And, while privacy rights advocates are worried the bill would give the recording industry the right to access an individual's PC to search for copyright-protected works, RIAA president Hilary Rosen insisted musicians need civil and criminal enforcement help to stop illegal trading.

"I wish I could tell you that there is a silver bullet that could resolve this very serious problem," Rosen said. "There is not. The answer resides in a combination of efforts that must be undertaken at the same time."

She urged an extensive public education campaign about the illegality of file-sharing and the widespread availability of licensed services for consumers. More importantly, Rosen argued that the recording industry needed technological self-help measures to prevent illegal copying and make it less desirable.

"I want to emphasize that technology is not the enemy. Peer-to-peer technology holds amazing promise for creators and consumers to experience entertainment and to communicate in ways never before available," Rosen said. However, she argued that the "misuse of technology" deprives content creators of due compensation.

In supporting the bill, which tackles the "Piracy Of Intellectual Property On Peer-to-Peer Networks," Rosen said it is intended to level the technological playing field by assuring that copyright owners can take preventive measures to deny the unauthorized downloading of their works.

Rosen said the provisions of the bill, which allows the recording to tap into an individuals' PC does not invade the user's privacy or damage the computer or network. Instead, the recording industry is only allowed to peek into a P2P user's computer to the same extent that any other (peer-to-peer) user is able to do so.

The bill, the most radical anti-piracy proposal before Congress, is not expected to pass in the current session, which ends in the middle of next month.

Public Knowledge, a public-interest advocacy organization, Media Defender and a songwriter also gave testimony but it was Morpheus' Griffin who made waves with his slam of the law as "shortsighted and nonsensical."

"Consumers have communicated that they want to connect directly in a peer-to-peer environment. We believe that there is an array of reasonable solutions to the battle between the content industry and the technology industry over such issues as peer-to-peer technology and use," Griffin argued.

"Rather than adopt shortsighted, nonsensical, and overreaching laws, Congress should facilitate a dialogue between the stakeholders in an effort to reach a reasonable, workable solution to these very important issues. If this fails to happen, the ordinary citizen, the consumer, is the one who will ultimately lose," he added.

Griffin told journalists afterwards that Morpheus' legal battles with the recording industry were a major financial strain. "We hope the courts will vindicate us but it's been really hard. I've been in business for 27 yrs and I've never been through such a difficult thing to have people call me a pirate, a hacker and a thief," he said.

At the end of the hearing, Sensenbrenner warned about "misinformation" surrounding the bill. "This is not a black and white issue. It has subtle shades of gray. This matter is not going to be pronounced dead today. The last rites will not be announced today," he said.