Coalition asks US Congress to kill copyright bill

Legislation called "overkill" in intellectual property rights enforcement

WASHINGTON - A coalition of technology and advocacy groups on Friday asked the U.S. Senate to kill copyright legislation that might result in jail time for people who trade copyrighted files online.

The coalition, led by civil rights group Public Knowledge, voiced their opposition to the Cooperative Research and Technology Enhancement (CREATE) Act, a bill passed by the House of Representatives in March. The bill, a combination of other copyright legislation introduced in the House, includes prison sentences of three to 10 years for the electronic distribution of copyrighted works worth more than $1,000 for willful violations, or in some cases, the distribution of more than 1,000 copies of a copyrighted work.

Combined with a lower standard to define criminal copyright violations, the bill would target many peer-to-peer (P-to-P) file traders for jail time, said Sarah Deutsch, vice president and associate general counsel for Verizon Communications Inc.

"(The bill) represents an overkill in intellectual property enforcement," Deutsch said during a press conference. "Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people will face liability."

The groups opposing the bill raised several other objections. The bill, sponsored by Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, would allow the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to file civil lawsuits against copyright violators, and the version of the bill passed by the House may outlaw the practice of using technologies such as VCRs or digital recorders to skip commercials. A spokesman for Smith wasn't immediately available for comment.

A section of the bill called the Family Movie Act would allow people watching movies at home to use technology to edit out obscenities, nudity or other objectionable content. But that section of the bill allows such changes to movies as long as "no changes, deletions or additions are made ... to commercial advertisements, or to network or station promotional announcements, that would otherwise be performed or displayed before, during or after the performance of the motion picture."

That provision in the bill appears to outlaw the common practice of skipping commercials with devices such as TiVo Inc.'s digital video recorder, said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge. "We could not support that," she said. "The bill, in its current form, is anticonsumer and anticompetitive."

The groups opposed to the bill, including the Consumer Electronics Association and the Computer and Communications Industry Association, also objected to the bill's language to allow the DOJ to sue file traders and other copyright violators in civil court. The groups objected to taxpayer money being used in government lawsuits on behalf of the recording or movie industries.

"It's plain wrong to make the Department of Justice Hollywood's law firm," said Stacie Rumenap, deputy director of the American Conservative Union.

The Motion Picture Association of America Inc. (MPAA) called the objects to the bill overblown. While the bill does expand criminal copyright violations to include online distribution of files, that provision in the bill simply updates copyright violation penalties to include new technologies such as P-to-P, said David Green, vice president and counsel for technology and new media at the MPAA. Users of P-to-P shouldn't be exempted from a law that other copyright violators already face, he said.

The law also lowers the legal standard of criminal copyright violations from "willfully" violating the law to "knowing distribution with reckless disregard of the risk of further infringement." Deutsch said that expansion of the definition of a criminal copyright violation could mean Internet service providers or grandmothers who own computers that their grandchildren use to trade files could be prosecuted.

But the new standard only applies to copyright violators who trade 1,000 or more files, $10,000 worth of copyrighted works, or works not yet released to the public, Green noted. The more narrow "willful" standard allows criminal violations for distribution of $1,000 worth of works. "It adapts the criminal law to go after the most egregious offenders," he said. "I think it is fair and reasonable."

Green also disagreed with the bill's opponents who questioned whether the bill would outlaw the skipping of commercials. The Family Movie Act section of the bill allows home viewers to use technology to delete racy scenes in movies, but only prohibits home users from skipping commercials when they are also skipping scenes, he said.

The provision to allow the DOJ to file civil lawsuits against copyright violators gives prosecutors a tool to go after violators when criminal charges aren't appropriate, added Green.

"I find it ironic, because these are the same people who are saying, 'Don't file criminal prosecutions against these file traders," Green said. "It just gives the Department of Justice another option when neither criminal prosecution nor doing nothing is an appropriate response."

Congress comes back in session Nov. 16, and opponents of the CREATE Act urged the Senate to hold a series of hearings to focus on the issues raised in the bill. The House bill had one hearing before it was passed, noted Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association. "There was no discussion, no debate ... I personally have a problem with that," he said.