Working through the weekend on a hotly contested topic with ramifications for the Internet and technology industries, the U.S. Senate approved a modified version of a controversial copyright protection bill being backed by the entertainment industry.
The Senate on Saturday passed what it’s calling the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act of 2004, a much-revised version of the Intellectual Property Protection Act, which originated in the House of Representatives as a compromise version of several earlier bills. The new legislation now will be sent to the House of Representatives for action before the end of the year.
The new bill appears to strip out much of the most hotly contested material in the original legislation, including a provision, contained in the PIRATE Act, that gave attorneys general the authority to file civil lawsuits — funded by taxpayers — against alleged infringers. Also shelved was language from an earlier bill that would have lowered the threshold for proving copyright infringement.
Most of the groups that had been up in arms about the earlier legislation said the bill is a significant improvement, but is still a warning sign that legislators could curtail digital freedoms to use electronics devices and computer networks.
Gigi B. Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a lobbyist group that argues for digital freedoms, said the bill will “benefit consumers now and from the innovation in technology that will result in coming years.” He cited the provisions for enabling consumers to use devices that let them skip commercials or block movies from being viewed because of inappropriate content.
“Consumers won a major victory when the Senate removed the most egregious elements of the omnibus copyright bill,” Sohn said.
Tech industry lobbyists and others will be among those watching closely as the current lame-duck legislative session winds down to ensure lawmakers don’t revive some of the provisions dropped by the Senate. Doing so would require a reconciliation of the differences of the bills in a joint committee, which could scuttle the bill’s passage for this session.
Tough language was retained in the bill about piracy of movies from theaters. Provisions from the Artists’ Rights and Theft Prevention Act were maintained that provide for jail terms of up to three years for anyone convicted of using a camcorder or other device to pirate a film and toughen penalties for those who sell movies on the black market before they are released commercially.
The new legislation also steers clear of the so-called Induce Act, which the tech industry has been fighting vigorously. Critics said it allowed the entertainment industry to target any products it felt were a threat as potentially illegal and would have sharply reduced innovation in the field. They also argued that, because the law would only apply to U.S. companies, it would put American tech firms at a competitive disadvantage.
The fate of the controversial Induce Act that would restrict file-sharing technology that can be used to illegally download and share copyrighted material was in question today after negotiations between the music and electronics industries broke down as the current Congressional session nears an end, possibly by this weekend.
Talks aimed at a compromise on that bill, which was put forward by the Copyright Office after court rulings found P2P file-swapping networks were legal, broke down earlier this fall, making it unlikely the legislation would be picked up in the same form any time soon.
Will Rodger, director of public policy at the Computer and Communications Industry Association and the Open Source and Industry Association, said the language in that bill spelled potential disaster for the technology industry.
“The recording and movie industries thought they could come up with a magic bullet to kill infringement,” Rodger said. “That’s just not going to happen, never mind what the consequences might be for the U.S. economy as a whole.”