WASHINGTON--To avoid having a copyright bill favored by the music industry become mired in controversy, a U.S. House of Representatives panel has agreed to remove a section that would have dramatically increased fines in copyright infringement lawsuits.
Under the original Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act (the PRO IP Act), a defendant accused of unlawfully downloading each track from, say, the best-selling 22-track Janet Jackson album Discipline could be forced to pay $30,000 in damages per song. That's $660,000--far above the $30,000 maximum damages-per-compilation that current law allows.
Now the current $30,000-per-compilation limit will stay intact. An outcry from digital rights groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge prompted a House Judiciary subcommittee that presides over intellectual property law to remove that provision from the version of the PRO IP Act that was approved Thursday. With no debate, the subcommittee approved a manager's amendment and then, by a unanimous voice vote, the full bill.
The bipartisan copyright law overhaul, which is strongly supported by major copyright holders like the Recording Industry Association of America, Motion Picture Association of America, and NBC Universal, was proposed in December.
Thursday's vote seems designed not to repeat the fate of what has happened before--in recent years, other entertainment industry-backed copyright bills have attracted significant controversy and not become law. They include a Senate proposal to allow federal prosecutors to sue alleged copyright infringers (that proposal recently re-emerged), an effort to lock down features on satellite radio players, and a House proposal to lock up people who "attempt" piracy.
Despite the amendment passed Thursday, Democratic committee leaders warned the heightened damages section is not dead and said they'd continue to fight to up the penalties.
"Whether it is still prudent to limit statutory damages when multiple works on a compilation have been infringed is a topic of ongoing conversations and subject matter for another day," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.).
That action nevertheless leaves a bill that numbers more than 60 pages and proposes a number of sweeping changes to copyright law aimed at beefing up penalties for pirates and counterfeiters.
Most notably, it would allow federal officials to seize property, including computer equipment used to commit intellectual property crimes or obtained as a result of those proceeds. An amendment adopted Thursday, however, attempts to narrow that enforcement power, saying the government would have to establish that "there was a substantial connection between the property and the offense."
That's designed to address concerns that the forfeiture sections "could ensnare materials and devices that would have only a fleeting connection to the offense," said Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the intellectual property subcommittee.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said she was concerned that the change wouldn't address the possibility that innocent people could find their property seized if a convicted pirate used it to commit crimes without their knowledge. (At least one defendant in a peer-to-peer lawsuit brought by the RIAA was sued because someone else was using their Wi-Fi access point.)
"There should be at least a knowledge component or a willfulness component connected with that," she said. "I don't think there's a deterrent effect if we punish an innocent individual or entity."
Bill would create new IP enforcement agency
The bill would also create a new federal bureaucracy called the White House Intellectual Property Enforcement Representative, or WHIPER, that seems in some ways to be modeled after the U.S. Trade Representative. It's designed to help coordinate the efforts of the eight government agencies that have jurisdiction over intellectual property cases, Berman said.
The head of WHIPER, a presidential appointee subject to Senate confirmation, would be tasked with being the president's principal adviser and spokesman for intellectual property matters and with identifying countries that don't adequately protect intellectual property rights.
WHIPER would also be responsible for drawing up a "Joint Strategic Plan" that addresses how to disrupt piracy and counterfeit supply chains. The bill as proposed would have also required WHIPER to set about "identifying individuals" involved in the "trafficking" of "pirated goods," but because of concerns raised by consumer groups about that approach, that requirement was wiped out by the amendment adopted Thursday. WHIPER would also have to provide annual reports to Congress on its activities.
The bill would also offer state and local governments $25 million in grant money to help them combat intellectual property crimes, and it would dispatch 10 "intellectual property attaches" to embassies around the world.
Michael Petricone, a senior vice president with the Consumer Electronics Association, told CNET News.com after the vote that he thought the revised bill was "balanced" and "responsive to the tech industry's concerns."
The Copyright Alliance, a Washington-based lobby group that represents major entertainment industry groups, applauded the bill's passage, saying it "will provide much-needed resources and organization to enforcement efforts on foreign and domestic fronts." (The alliance's 44 members include the RIAA, MPAA, Association of American Publishers, and companies like Microsoft, Viacom, and Walt Disney.)
The bill's next step is a vote in the full House Judiciary Committee, which is expected to happen soon. Berman, the IP subcommittee's chairman and one of the bill's chief sponsors, said he hoped to get the bill to the House floor by April. (No Senate counterpart currently exists.)