Senators crack down on pirates

SAN FRANCISCO (11/14/2003) - The bipartisan bill is being prepared by U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and John Cornyn (R-Texas). It offers legislative assistance to the entertainment industry's war on technology that can assist in piracy.

Earlier this year, the Recording Industry Association of America began suing people who share digital music online. The Motion Picture Association of America is behind a recent FCC order that recording devices must soon recognize a broadcast "flag" that will prevent users from transmitting recorded digital programs over a network.

The Feinstein-Cornyn measure would also strengthen antipiracy laws concerning peer-to-peer networks, implement higher copyright protection, and impose tougher penalties for damages, according to Cornyn's office. It was unveiled in a Senate office building Thursday and could be introduced into the Senate as early as next week, says John Drogin, a Cornyn aide.

Copy wars

Covert film-recording, particularly of movies early in their release, has become prevalent and damaging to the film industry, says Rich Taylor, vice president of public affairs at the Motion Picture Association of America.

"Even four, five years ago, the quality was not that great," Taylor says. But today's digital technologies enable movie patrons to use camcorders or other video recording devices to make pirated films that are difficult to distinguish from an original video or DVD, he says.

The MPAA expects such piracy will only worsen with increased availability of broadband and other fast Internet connections to distribute the stolen films.

"Copyright piracy, both through the Internet and other media, poses a serious and increasing danger to the vibrant U.S. entertainment industry," Cornyn said in a statement.

As much as 92.4 percent of the movies distributed illegally on the Internet are created through the use of camcorders, according to an MPAA study. The film industry estimates it suffers losses of US$3 billion each year from pirated products.

The music industry is backing the bill as well. Music labels lose money because of pirated recordings from incomplete albums, says Mitch Bainwol, RIAA chief executive officer, who participated in the news conference unveiling the legislation.

"Often, the pirated version is not the final product that reflects the artist's complete vision of the album, and it hurts the ability of the record label to invest in and produce great new music," Bainwol said.

Other aspects

Traditional copyright laws already cover most of what the bill intends to protect, says Mike Godwin, a senior technology attorney with Public Knowledge, a copyright and technology advocacy group.

Godwin says the provision that lets copyright owners recover damages from those who distribute pirated films is too vague. "I think in almost all circumstances, the economic harm associated with releasing a pre-release copy and distributing it widely is going to add up to infringement," he says.

The MPAA's Taylor applauds the bill's efforts. But while many films are recorded in the U.S., most DVD and videotape copies are produced overseas, Taylor acknowledges.

In countries such as Russia and China, "very sophisticated, state of the art replication plants exist, solely to churn out motion picture products," Taylor says. To combat that type of piracy, the U.S. could pressure other governments. But this bill is a first step in the right direction, Taylor says.

"Anything that increases the risk for those who want to engage in that type of behavior" is helpful, he adds.

Feinstein says the bill is intended to reinforce Constitutional protection of science and art discoveries and products. "Giving artists the incentive to produce cutting-edge works is vital to our country," she said in a statement.

Becky Bowman writes for Medill News Service.

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