By David McGuire, Staff Writer
The entertainment industry is pushing Congress to approve a bill that
could send thousands of Internet music and movie downloaders to jail,
but the legislation faces opposition from groups that say it would
unfairly punish consumers.
The package combines eight bills that the entertainment industry
supports as part of a large-scale effort to crack down on the rampant
spread of piracy on the Internet. The bill also would criminalize
using a video recorder to copy films while they are still in the
theater, and allow the Justice Department to file civil lawsuits
The bill is one of many that Congress could consider as it convenes
today for a post-election lame-duck session, but sources familiar with
the legislation said that it is impossible to predict whether
lawmakers will act. Opponents of the bill fear that its supporters
will slip it into one of the massive legislative packages that
Congress often passes at the end of the year.
"We take nothing for granted," said Gigi Sohn, president of Public
Knowledge, a Washington, D.C.-based civil liberties group. "There's
not a lot of time, but if you look away for a second, this bill can
just shoot through."
Public Knowledge has joined the Consumer Electronics Association,
Verizon, the American Conservative Union and other groups in opposing
the package, which so far has steamrolled toward passage with little
Music and movie industry officials said that Congress already has
shown its support for the measures in the bill.
"It's not like these bills came out of nowhere. All of these bills had
been passed by one house or another," said David Green, vice president
for technology and new media at the Motion Picture Association of
One of the most contentious measures in the package, the Piracy
Deterrence and Education Act, won approval in the House of
Representatives earlier this year. The PIRATE Act sailed through the
The first bill would allow prosecutors to seek jail terms of up to
five years for people who make 1,000 or more songs available for
download on peer-to-peer networks such as Kazaa and eDonkey. The
PIRATE Act would allow the Justice Department to seek civil damages
against illegal file sharers. Under current law, the Justice
Department only can prosecute criminal copyright violations.
If the package became law, prosecutors no longer would have to prove
that a suspect willfully distributed illegally copied files. This is a
problem, opponents said, because most Internet file-sharing software
is designed to automatically share the contents of people's music
libraries with other members on the network. This means that people
with more than a thousand songs on their computers could face jail
time even if they never intended to share their music, they said.
"It's really unprecedented in our copyright law to send somebody to
jail unless they've done something willfully," said Sarah
Deutsch, vice president and associate general counsel at Verizon
Communications. "Since so many digital devices today hold thousands
and thousands of songs, hundreds of thousands if not millions of
people will face liability."
Green said that prosecutors would still have to prove that defendants
knew they were illegally sharing the files.
The copyright package is almost a consolation prize for the
entertainment industry, which spent much of this year urging Congress
to pass the Induce Act, an attempt to drive song-swapping networks out
of business by exposing them to monetary damages for inducing people
to illegally share files.
The Induce Act failed after a broad group of free-speech advocates,
technology companies and Internet service providers complained that
the measure could inadvertently target popular, legal devices like the
The recording industry has seen its sales and profits plummet as the
popularity of peer-to-peer file swapping has risen. Compact disc sales
fell from a high of $13.2 billion in 2000 to $11.2 billion in 2003,
according to the Recording Industry Association of America, which put
much of the blame on an exponential increase in file sharing. CD sales
bounced back in early 2004, but have not reached their previous high
levels, the RIAA said.
In addition to stumping for stiffer copyright laws, the recording
industry has sued more than 6,000 suspected song-swappers since
The major Hollywood studios so far have avoided a similar fate, in
part because it is more time-consuming to download feature-length
films. Still, they are working to prevent a similar siphoning off of
their profits. Earlier this month, MPAA Chairman Dan Glickman
announced that the association will sue people suspected of Internet
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