White House IPO czar bill clears first hurdle


WASHINGTON -- An anti-piracy enforcer would be installed in the White House under a broad proposal to strengthen the government's hand in the war on intellectual property crimes. That proposal cleared its first big legislative hurdle Thursday.

A top priority for the movie studios and record industry, the PRO-IP Act won unanimous approval by the House Judiciary Committee's intellectual property subcommittee. The vote is a strong signal that the legislation, which also is being pushed by a broad coalition of manufacturing and labor interests, can become law this year.

The bill attempts to make it easier for law enforcement officers to go after the personnel and material that pirates use to import and manufacture everything from brake parts to DVDs.

"We need to radically step up our efforts because the problem is expanding faster than our enforcement officers can keep up," full committee chairman Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said. "Status quo, no matter how aggressively pursued by earnest, intelligent, hardworking people, has thus far been woefully insufficient."

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., estimated that counterfeiting and piracy cost the U.S. economy at least $225 billion a year. Although Berman is the bill's primary author, many of the recommendations were developed by the U.S. Chamber off Commerce's Coalition Against Counterfeiting and Piracy, headed up by NBC Universal executive vp and general counsel Rick Cotton.

Berman was able to garner the unanimous vote after he dropped a provision sought by the record labels that would have allowed prosecutors to seek a separate criminal count against every alleged infringement in a compilation. That provision would have allowed multiple infringement counts against each song on a pirated CD.

Although objections to the provision by some in the high-tech industries and their congressional allies persuaded the bill's backers to drop the provision, Berman and Conyers said they aren't ready to give up the idea.

"Just because we took this provision out doesn't mean it is no longer an issue," Conyers said.

The bill is likely to undergo more tweaking before it gets to the House floor. There still are some questions to be resolved about provisions that allow the government to seize property bootleggers use. And there are concerns about how the White House copyright czar will function.

The White House and Justice Department have also raised behind-the-scenes objections as officials there bristle at congressional temerity to tell them what to do. Under the bill, the U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Representative would work from the White House with broad powers to direct and implement the federal government's battle against IP piracy.

"The only people who are really saying anything against the bill are the administration," a source said.

The US IPER would be on roughly the same footing in the White House as the U.S. Trade Representative and would function as the president's principal adviser on domestic and international intellectual property enforcement.

Hopes for enactment of the legislation are high, however, as the bill has the backing of nearly every major industrial enterprise and the labor unions.