U.S. President Barack Obama isn't the only government official who wants to smack down copyright infringement and counterfeiting.
During a hearing before the House of Representatives' Committee on Foreign Affairs, some congressional lawmakers on Wednesday said they want the U.S. government to retaliate against countries that turn a blind eye to online piracy, as well as people who peddle knockoffs of American products here and abroad.
The Obama administration has made copyright enforcement a priority, but Wednesday's hearing made it clear that thwarting piracy and counterfeiting has bipartisan support. The film and music industries have claimed that Web sites based overseas have cost them billions of dollars and thousands of jobs. Representatives of other industries, including companies that manufacture pharmaceuticals, car parts, clothing, medical equipment, and even golf clubs, say counterfeit goods have crippled them.
Several congressmen suggested that we block goods from entering this country from nations with poor track records of protecting U.S. intellectual property. Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) asked why we couldn't withhold visas to students and tourists from countries that are hostile to U.S. copyrights.
The Foreign Affairs committee convened, in part, to hear how Victoria Espinel, the U.S. intellectual property enforcement coordinator, intended to protect the country's intellectual property from theft in other countries. Some committee members made it clear that they didn't like what they heard--or, more to the point, what they didn't hear.
Time and time again, committee members asked Espinel how she was going to penalize or punish countries that refused to do anything to protect American intellectual property and time and time again, Espinel offered generalities or ticked off traditional strategies that have yielded mixed results.
During questioning by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), Espinel was asked what her plans were to penalize countries that allowed the pirating and counterfeiting of U.S. intellectual property.
Espinel repeatedly said the U.S. Trade Representative could be directed to pressure bad actors through the World Trade Organization, the body that supervises international trade. "There are no new simple answers," Espinel said repeatedly. That didn't satisfy many of the committee members, regardless of political affiliation.
"I'm not hearing the urgency," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who also told Espinel that she wanted "meat and potatoes" or harder information about plans to save jobs from piracy and advised Espinel that now was the time to "hammer on the desktop."
In Espinel's defense, she is probably correct when she said there are no easy answers to defeating piracy overseas. Consider that The Pirate Bay, a BitTorrent index that enables users to hunt down pirated copies of movies and other media, has thumbed its nose at U.S. copyright laws for years.
Founded in 2003 by three twentysomething Scandinavians, The Pirate Bay has managed to defy the USTR's efforts to shut down the site from its base in Sweden. While the Swedish government has won a criminal conviction against the three, the case is on appeal and The Pirate Bay continues to be a favorite pirate tool for more than 20 million users.
The USTR was, however successful at convincing Russia to crack down on pirate Web sites over the past three years. The Russian government helped closed down the popular outlaw music service, Allofmp3.com. In that case, however, the United States had something to negotiate with. Russia was vying to join the WTO and the U.S. had the power to veto Russia's membership.
But the USTR doesn't always have such a trump card to play.
One exchange between committee members illustrated how hard it might be to find answers to these problems.
Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) responded to Poe's argument that we should reduce the number of student visas for China by pointing out this would harm people in his state.
He said many of those would-be students from China attend schools in New England. Not only that, but the families of these students visit, which helps Massachusetts' business people.