Proposed Law Stiffens Penalties For Piracy

The movie and record industry got an assist from Washington, as lawmakers last week introduced a new bill that stiffens penalties for piracy, while the Bush administration argued in support of a six-figure fine in a copyright infringement case.

The new PRO IP (Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act), H. R. 4279, introduced with bipartisan support, would boost some fines from the current maximum of $30,000 for non-intentional infringements. Under the new bill, courts would be able to issue damages of $30,000 for each track on an album, as opposed to one $30,000 fine per album. Sponsors include Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), Howard Berman (D-Calif.), Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.).

The bill also authorizes the creation of a new chief advisor on intellectual property, and creates a new Intellectual Property Enforcement Division of the Justice Department budgeted at $25 million a year.

The entertainment industry has been lobbying for tougher copyright infringement laws, arguing that they continue to lose money when people unlawfully upload or download music and clips.

Jeff Zucker, president and chief executive officer of NBC Universal, praised the new legislation last week during a keynote speech at the UBS Conference. While he complained that technology "has made it easier for people to steal our content," he said the new bill "will continue to protect our intellectual property."

But copyright reform advocates say the measure is not needed--and that even under existing law, damage awards are sometimes disproportionately high.

"Nobody has made the case to us why penalties for copyright violations need to be increased," said Gigi Sohn, president and co-founder of advocacy group Public Knowledge.

Sohn adds that her organization supports overhauling copyright laws to take into account the way consumers experience digital media today --including the ways they make use of copyrighted material in their own creations. "The law doesn't make sense," she said. "Why is Congress focusing on ratcheting up fines and rearranging the intellectual property deck chairs?"

The move to introduce new legislation came as the Bush Administration intervened on behalf of the record companies in the case of Jammie Thomas, a single mother fined $220,000 for uploading 24 tracks to Kazaa. The Justice Department last week filed a brief arguing that the damage award isn't unconstitutionally excessive.

The PRO IP Act isn't the only anti-piracy bill under consideration. Last month, Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.) introduced the Intellectual Property Enforcement Act of2007, which authorizes the Department of Justice to file civil lawsuits against file-sharers and creates a new FBI unit dedicated to enforcing intellectual property laws.

Also last month, the House Education and Labor Committee unanimously approved the Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007 (H.R. 4137), which requires colleges and universities that receive federal financial aid to explore "technology-based deterrents" to illegal downloading.

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