May 19, 2003 3:51 PM PDT

Congressional caucus targets piracy

Three members of the House of Representatives are creating a new congressional caucus devoted to combating piracy and promoting stronger intellectual property laws.

A letter sent to some members of Congress on Friday by Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., warned of the threat of "ever-changing technologies" and asked colleagues if they would like to join the caucus. "The concerns of the thousands of Americans whose livelihoods depend on intellectual property protection are not being fully debated or addressed," said the letter, which was obtained by CNET News.com.

A representative for Wexler said Monday that planning for the caucus--formally titled the Congressional Caucus on Intellectual Property Promotion and Piracy Prevention--is still in its early stages. "We literally just submitted the papers at the end of the last week, so it's just in formation," the representative said, adding that many possible Republican members have not yet been contacted.

Wexler co-sponsored a bill last year, backed by the major record labels, that would authorize copyright holders to disable PCs used for illicit file-trading. He also serves on the House Judiciary subcommittee that writes copyright laws.

It's unclear what immediate effect the caucus will have on new laws aimed at peer-to-peer (P2P) pirates, although one likely outcome is a new focus on what has emerged as a hot topic in the 108th Congress. The founding of the caucus comes as Congress is spending more time scrutinizing illegal file-sharing. One recent House committee hearing blamed P2P networks for spreading illegal forms of pornography, while another fingered universities as hotbeds of widespread--and felonious--copyright infringement.

Joining Wexler as co-founder of the caucus is Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who helped author a note last fall to 74 fellow Democrats assailing the Linux open-source operating system's GNU General Public License as a threat to America's "innovation and security." Smith's district includes the Seattle surburbs near Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., headquarters. The third founder is Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla., a first-term congressman and former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives who was once Gov. Jeb Bush's running mate.

Hilary Rosen, chairman of the Recording Industry Association of America, commended the move. She said in an e-mail sent to CNET News.com that the RIAA applauds the House members "for forming this caucus and helping to focus the national debate on protecting intellectual property and preventing piracy. It's initiatives like this, along with those of other congressional leaders, which help showcase the economic and cultural contributions of the creative community while shedding light on piracy's harmful impact."

The Motion Picture Association of America was equally positive. "We're always grateful when members of Congress devote their attention to an issue as critical as the protection of copyrighted works," spokesman Rich Taylor said. "We look forward to working with this new body in the days and weeks to come, to help create an environment where a legitimate digital marketplace can thrive."

Hundreds of congressional caucuses exist, covering topics ranging from the Congressional Kidney Caucus to the Congressional Natural Hazards Caucus. Some, like the Congressional Black Caucus, are muscular enough to take an aggressive role in legislation. Others, like the Congressional Internet Caucus, are a way for the caucus' advisory board--in this case, groups like AOL Time Warner, Microsoft, eBay and the RIAA--to exert political influence.

Mike Godwin, senior technology counsel at the Public Knowledge advocacy group, said the House subcommittee that oversees intellectual property law "has been pretty energetic" already in reviewing the intersection of technology and copyright policy.

"If they believe that the best way to do it is to develop a caucus around P2P sharing, that's a fine idea," Godwin said. "As long as they remember that P2P sharing is at the heart of the design of the Internet."

 

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