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Uncertain Landscape Ahead for Copyright Protection

The aide, who asked to remain anonymous, said Specter might be inclined to let Hatch keep holding the reins. Specter "has been a follower rather than a leader on these issues," the aide said. "Given his new role and the number of issues he's going to have to deal with off the bat where he has shown an interest, he may choose ... [to] let Hatch and [ranking Democratic panel member Sen. Patrick J.] Leahy take the lead."

Before Hatch assumed the chairmanship, the panel had a subcommittee that dealt exclusively with intellectual property matters. A former staffer for Hatch said the senator did away with that subcommittee largely because he wanted to keep the issue under his own jurisdiction, but Specter could spearhead an effort as chairman to reestablish it.

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Former staffers for both senators said that if Hatch wanted to re-launch the intellectual property panel, Specter would probably play along. Nobody in the committee or in the senators' offices would comment on whether such a move had been discussed, but lobbyists on the issue, former staffers and observers suspect it's already in the works.

"Specter and Hatch work pretty well together and [Hatch] was pretty good during the whole discussion of [Specter's] chairmanship. That's something where Specter would be willing to help," one of Specter's former aides said.

Hatch getting the subcommittee nod could significantly shift the dynamic of the debate. Congress watchers point out that the House, which still has an intellectual property subcommittee, has been far more prolific than the Senate in drafting measures on the topic in recent years. Were Hatch to chair a subcommittee, he would have an entire staff and a huge chunk of his time to devote to those issues.

And even if he isn't given a new chairmanship, Hatch will remain a force in the intellectual property debate, said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America. "He's still a senior member of the U.S. Senate and if he stands up on January 1st and says, 'This is an issue that needs to be dealt with,' it's not like people are going to suddenly ignore him because he's no longer chairman."

Still, regardless of where Hatch ends up, Specter will play a major role in how the electronic piracy debate evolves in the upcoming congressional session. Even if Hatch is chairing a subcommittee and churning out bills, it'll be up to Specter to determine what moves.

He may get a chance to make those decisions early in the term. In addition to Induce, two other anti-piracy measures supported by Hatch -- one which would have allowed the Justice Department to slap downloaders with financial penalties, and another which would have made it easier to jail file swappers -- failed to pass at the end of the 2004 session.

"Copyright issues are important and they're going to percolate up, and it's really impossible for [Specter] to ignore them," said David Green, vice president for technology and new media at the Motion Picture Association of America. "He might be right now more interested in something else, but because these issues are important to America they are going to be important to Arlen Specter."

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