New Bill Stiffens File-Sharing Penalties

The U.S. House of Representatives is edging closer to laying out harsher penalties and stepping up enforcement for the illegal sharing of music and movies.

Yesterday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) introduced a bill that would establish a permanent intellectual property enforcement division within the Department of Justice.

The bill — the Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property (“PRO IP”) Act of 2007 — also increases penalties for copyright violations like music sharing and pirating movies.

In a statement, Rep. Conyers called the bill “an important and necessary step in the fight to maintain our competitive edge in a global marketplace.”

“By providing additional resources for enforcement of intellectual property, we ensure that innovation and creativity will continue to prosper in our society,” he said.

The bill enjoys wide bipartisan backing within the committee, with 10 of its members having joined as co-sponsors.

In addition to increasing the penalties for violation of existing copyright and intellectual property laws, the proposed legislation would create an Office of the United States Intellectual Property Enforcement Representative (USIPER).

The office, which would reside under the Executive Office of the President, would coordinate enforcement of intellectual property laws concerning intellectual property within the US and internationally.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), a bill co-sponsor who also chairs the Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property said in a statement that while he supports the law, he is aware of concerns about the impact of the legislation on consumers.

“As a cosponsor, I obviously feel very strongly that we must strengthen enforcement efforts to fight piracy and counterfeiting,” said Berman, whose subcommittee will next take up the proposed law. “At the hearing, we will be hearing testimony from both industry experts and from labor and consumer advocates to make sure that in doing so, we don’t deny appropriate access to America’s intellectual property.”

Not surprisingly, response from business organizations to the Act’s introduction proved immediate and positive.

“It’s time to recognize the severity of these crimes. We are talking about thieves that threaten the health, safety, and jobs of everyday Americans,” Tom Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. “Legislation to strengthen penalties for these sophisticated crooks and provide greater resources for the men and women on the ground fighting this raging epidemic is imperative.”

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) also weighed in favorably on the news.

“Intellectual property fuels the U.S. economy and stronger enforcement measures are needed to protect the many American business sectors and American workers that depend on it,” said MPAA CEO Dan Glickman. “In the motion picture industry alone, film theft costs foreign and domestic distributors, retailers and others $18 billion a year, not to mention the loss of more than 100,000 America jobs.”

“From counterfeit medicine and fake automobile parts to pirated movies and knockoff handbags, the ill effects of intellectual property theft are felt across many sectors of the U.S. economy,” he added. “I am pleased to see a concerted effort by Congress to address this growing problem.”

Meanwhile, the reaction from consumer and cyber-rights advocacy groups was just as quick, but far less glowing.

“All sides of the copyright debate agree that reform of current copyright law is needed, and any legislation that starts that conversation is welcome,” said Maura Corbett of the Digital Freedom Campaign, a group founded last year advocating protections and education on fair content use. Backers include the Consumer Electronics Association, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Library Association, among others.

“But any reform to copyright law must recognize the important balance between the rights of copyright holders to protect their intellectual property and the rights of artists, musicians and filmmakers to innovate, create new works, and make full use of lawfully acquired digital content,” Corbett said. “We hope this bill will serve as a catalyst to larger, more meaningful reform.”

The news comes the same day as the Justice Department sided with the Recording Industry Association of America, filing a request for dismissal in the appeal of a Minnesota woman fighting a $220,000 judgment for illegal file sharing.

The case drew worldwide attention because the woman, a 30-year-old single mother Jammie Thomas, stands as the first person brought to court by the RIAA for illegally sharing music files.

Similarly, critics of the PRO IP Act cautioned about overly harsh penalties for consumers.

“Several provisions in this bill could have harmful, if unintended, consequences that would harm consumers,” said Gigi Sohn, president of Washington, D.C.-based public interest group Public Knowledge, in a statement. “The bill rightly targets enforcement of copyright law against commercial infringers, but some of these same enforcement provisions are likely to hurt ordinary consumers.”

“Seizing expensive manufacturing equipment used for large-scale infringement from a commercial pirate may be appropriate,” Sohn said. “Seizing a family’s general-purpose computer in a download case, as this bill would allow, is not appropriate.”

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