Lawmaker Seeks Greater FBI Role in Online Piracy War
Proposed bill draws wide praise but also concerns about consumer fair use rights.
WASHINGTON -- Legislation designed to provide law enforcement more tools to fight online copyright theft met a warm reception Thursday afternoon by those invited to testify at a Congressional hearing and harsh words from those who weren't invited.
The Piracy Deterrence and Education Act of 2003 (H.R. 2517), introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R.-Tex.), calls for greater FBI and Department of Justice (DoJ) involvement in Hollywood's ongoing war against file swappers.
The legislation mandates the FBI to "develop a program to deter members of the public from committing acts of copyright infringement," including increased information sharing of suspected online copyright violations among various law enforcement agencies, copyright owners and Internet service providers (ISPs).
In addition, the DoJ would be required to formulate programs to educate the public on copyright laws.
All of the bill's provisions were endorsed by witnesses appearing before the House Subcommittee on the Internet and Intellectual Property, chaired by Smith.
The FBI's assistant director of its Cyber Division said the bill would be welcome. Vivendi Universal's SVP and intellectual property counsel was equally supportive. The head of the Professional Photographers of America was for it, as was Linn R. Skinner, an embroidery historian who complained of infringement of her needlework designs.
"In trying to initiate federal prosecutions of online infringers, copyright owners have often found it difficult to persuade law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute these crimes," Smith said in his opening statement.
Although the Copyright Act already provides criminal and civil remedies for online copyright infringement, Smith said, "aggrieved copyright owners have largely chosen not to pursue these remedies."
Smith added, "It is widely believed that the successful prosecution of even a few online pirates will have a significant effect on individuals who engage in the practice."
Smith then orchestrated a series of questions to the witnesses that resulted in each endorsing his bill.
Only Rep. Rick Boucher (D.-Va.), who has introduced his own bill calling for consumer fair use rights, took exception to the legislation.
"I have concerns about this bill," he said. "I am concerned that we are directing the FBI to conduct an educational campaign on the nicities of copyright law. Will they also inform people about fair use?"
In its 1983 Betamax decision, the Supreme Court established the rights of consumers to make copies of legally purchased copyrighted material for the purpose of "fair use," such as making personal backup copies or multiple copies for different media devices.
However, the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which was enacted with the enthusiastic support of motion picture studios, the recording industry, and book publishers, makes it illegal to make copies of any digitally-recorded material for any purpose.
The DMCA also prohibits the manufacture, distribution or sale of technology which enables circumvention of protection measures.
Boucher's bill is intended to protect the fair use rights of consumers purchasing copyrighted digital material.
Boucher's position was also supported by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), which was not asked to testify at the hearing.
"The bill as written is troubling for consumers on multiple levels," said CEA President Gary Shapiro. "First, it suggests that any 'unauthorized' home recording is criminal conduct if the content is obtained from the Internet. In fact, the law clearly provides that certain unauthorized uses of content -- also known as fair use -- are protected, regardless of the content's source."