Senate Committee Passes Web Piracy Bill

A bill aimed at combating online counterfeiting and digital theft was passed unanimously Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee and appears likely to gain approval from the full Senate.

The committee's approval of the proposed law -- called the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeit Act -- won praise from the MPAA, four Hollywood guilds and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and disdain from such free-speech advocates as the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The law would give the Justice Department a new tool to go before a federal judge to ask that a website that it believes is acting illegally be shut down. At present, the process requires authorities to seek a criminal complaint, a lengthy process that involves the need for a lot of evidence. The new process would be a civil action that can be done quickly.

The bill is expected to go to the full Senate next, but it is unclear when it will be considered or whether it would be packaged with other bills. There is no House bill, but if passed, this would be considered by the House, probably during the next session.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D.-Vt., who introduced the bill, has been told that President Obama will sign it into law should the full Senate and House approve.

"Protecting the films, television shows, sound recordings and other content made by our members and enjoyed by audiences around the world is all the more urgent given the monumental and unchecked growth of Internet theft in recent years," SAG, AFTRA, DGA and IATSE said in a statement.

"The forsaken jobs and looted revenues that are so casually disregarded by both the operators of rogue sites and those who seek to protect their illegal activity reflect real wages, residuals, benefits and opportunities lost to our members forever thanks to those who knowingly and purposely traffic in Internet theft."

Bob Pisano, interim CEO of the MPAA, praised Leahy, who called the websites targeted by the bill "the 'worst of the worst' online websites.

"The operators of these sites knowingly break the law, harm the American economy, deprive American intellectual property owners of their rights, cost American jobs and, in the case of counterfeit prescription drugs, potentially threaten the health and welfare of American consumers," Pisano added.

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However, the Electronic Frontier Foundation charges that the bill would threaten lawful speech online. It wrote on its website that the bill would be "ineffective, unconstitutional, bad for innovation and the tech economy and would break the Internet."

The EFF said the bill would harm the "next generation" of businesses on the Internet and "used by Hollywood and the music industry to kill websites that they regard as too unrestrictive. Had COICA been law five years ago, platforms like YouTube might not exist today."

"This is a censorship bill, with a blacklist," the EFF added. "Hollywood's previous adventures with blacklists were a dark period in American history. This time, it's not people suspected of being too communist, it's websites suspected of being too 'piratical.' Senator Leahy is leading the government into the swamp of trying to decide which websites should be blacklisted and which ones shouldn't, and they're going to discover that the line between copyright infringement and free political speech can be awfully murky."

However, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce called the bill "carefully crafted" and said that it would provide "the Department of Justice enhanced legal tools to crack down on the very worst criminal websites to promote a safer, better Internet. This proactive legislation will facilitate continued innovation and creation, support consumer access to legitimate products and services and safeguard consumers from rogue sites that break the law and harm unsuspecting consumers."

The MPAA listed with its statement ways that they believe the bill will help:

-- Give the Department of Justice an expedited process for cracking down on websites that are dedicated to making infringing goods and services available;

-- Authorize the Department of Justice to file an in rem civil action against a domain name and seek a preliminary order from the court that the domain name is being used to traffic infringing material.

-- Provide safeguards allowing the domain name owner or site operator to petition the court to lift the order;

-- Provide safeguards against abuse by allowing only the Justice Department to initiate an action and by giving a federal court the final say about whether a particular site would be cut off from supportive services.

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