In the final few weeks before the 2004 election, lobbyists for high-tech, entertainment and civil liberties interests were crammed into an icy room in the Dirksen Senate office building, trying to hammer out a bill that would have put Internet song-swapping networks like Kazaa and eDonkey out of business.
It was a controversial measure on a difficult topic, and could have easily been lost in the end-of-year shuffle. But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) was the lead sponsor of the measure and had ordered the warring factions to keep talking until they came up with language everybody liked.
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Talks eventually collapsed, but the fact that the measure was being debated at all in the October before a national election testified to the power that an influential committee chairman like Hatch has in managing the legislative agenda.
"People were in that room for two reasons: One, because Senator Hatch has a history of wanting to get stuff done on intellectual property issues; and two, because he's the chairman," said a former Senate Judiciary counsel, who asked to remain anonymous.
In the realm of protecting music and movies from electronic theft, Hatch has been the entertainment industry's most powerful ally in Congress. A songwriter himself, Hatch has waged war against illegal file swapping, backing laws to stiffen copyright protections and keeping the issue in the spotlight with a steady stream of high-profile hearings.
In 2005, term limits require that Hatch hand over his chairman's gavel to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) -- an otherwise routine power shift that could have far-reaching implications for high-tech firms, movie studios, record companies and the future of downloading.
In Congress, the Senate and House judiciary committees have jurisdiction over any attempt to change federal law regarding criminal or civil violations. Efforts to outlaw certain kinds of peer-to-peer file swapping, increase penalties for illegal downloading or establish new rules against electronic copying must pass through those committees before they can come to a vote. In both chambers, chairmen set the agendas for their committees, so these individuals hold great sway over which bills go on the fast track and which ones die on the vine.
"Hatch has been a tremendous champion of certainly copyright, but also of all the intellectual property issues. It's not just a constituent issue for him. He's been just a terrific chairman, so it's a loss to not have him at the gavel," said Robert Raben, a former House Judiciary staffer who now lobbies Congress on intellectual property issues on behalf of the Recording Industry Association of America and other clients.
Opponents of the entertainment industry in the copyright debate -- including high-tech companies, Internet service providers and civil-liberties advocates who have long argued that stiffened protections come at the expense of lost technological freedom -- see Specter's ascension as an opportunity to gain ground in a fight that they say has been stacked against them.
In the late 1990s, Hatch led the effort to pass the landmark Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the Senate. That law, signed by President Clinton in 1998, stiffened protections for legitimate copies of music, movies and software, making it a crime to circumvent the electronic safeguards that copyright owners use to prevent illegal duplication. Specter voted for that measure along with 98 other senators, but Hatch was the sole Senate sponsor.