Panel OKs bill to create copyright czar

Next stop for legislation is House floor

WASHINGTON -- The next stop for legislation creating a copyright czar is the U.S. House floor after it was overwhelmingly approved Wednesday by the House Judiciary Committee, albeit with some changes to satisfy the White House.

A top priority for a diverse group of industries -- from the studios and record labels to auto-parts makers and pharmaceutical companies -- the Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act, or PRO IP, garnered only one opposing vote.

Under the bill, the United States Intellectual Property Enforcement Representative would have broad power to direct and implement the federal government's policies to combat IP piracy. The USIPER would have cabinet status on par with the United States Trade Representative.

That positioning in the government hierarchy offended USTR Susan Schwab, who feared that it would confuse other nations when she negotiates intellectual property accords. The USTR traditionally has been the nation's point person on intellectual property issues abroad.

Although the White House has refused to say where it stands on the bill, it has conducted a stealth campaign to water it down as various departments from Justice to the USTR seek to retain hegemony on the issue. The White House is unlikely to outright oppose the legislation because it has the backing not only of the hard-core copyright industries but the heavy manufacturing sector and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The bill's chief author, Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., changed portions of the bill to ameliorate the USTR's concerns and to ensure that other governments know that they are talking to the right person.

"Now the Chinese will know exactly who to ignore," one industry executive quipped.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., opposed the bill because one of the sections makes it easier for the government to seize property used in intellectual property crimes. One of the entertainment industry's biggest foes in Congress, she contends that the change will expose more innocent people to government copyright crime dragnets.

"The RIAA has made a business out of extorting money from students," Lofgren said before the vote.

Berman took umbrage to the notion.

"The current law allows the (property) you talked about to be seized," he said. "This is significantly narrower than is allowed on drug enforcement or other crimes."

The objection is unlikely to matter as the bill is expected to clear the House. The Senate is expected to take action on the legislation soon after the House finishes.