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Lawmakers Push Prison For Online Pirates

By David McGuire
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2004; 6:27 PM

People who illegally trade large amounts of copyrighted music online could face up to three years in jail under a bill approved today by a congressional panel.

A House Judiciary subcommittee unanimously approved the "Piracy Deterrence and Education Act of 2004," which would be the first law to punish Internet music pirates with jail time if it were signed into law.

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The bill targets people who trade more than 1,000 songs on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks like Kazaa and Morpheus, as well as people who make and sell bootlegged copies of films still in cinematic release. It also calls on the FBI to create a piracy deterrence program and would require the Justice Department to launch an anti-piracy education program. Furthermore, the bill would authorize $15 million for the department to spend in 2005 to prosecute copyright infringement cases.

"We have a paucity of criminal copyright prosecutions," said Howard Berman (D-Calif.), who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas). "It's become clear that law enforcers need additional authority."

Citing illegal downloading as a major cause of declining sales, the music industry is pursuing a legal offensive against people who illegally share copyrighted music online.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has sued more than 1,000 people, and reached hundreds of settlements worth thousands of dollars each.

"This is a common sense bill that ensures that federal prosecutors have the tools and expertise they need to fully enforce the laws on the books," said RIAA chief executive Mitch Bainwol in a prepared statement. "There is also a role for the federal government to help educate the public about theft of copyrighted works on the Internet."

"I don't think this is going to result in hundreds of cases, but even if it results in some number, it sends a message that criminal copyright infringement, even on peer-to-peer networks, will result in prosecutions," said David Green, a vice president at the Motion Picture Association of America.

The RIAA blames file sharing for taking a major bite out of CD sales, which fell from a high of $13.2 billion in 2000 to $11.2 billion in 2003, a period that matches the growth of online music piracy services. File sharing advocates counter that the flagging economy and rising CD prices are more to blame for driving down sales.

Nobody has yet faced jail time because existing copyright law makes it difficult to prove that a file swapper is guilty of a criminal offense, experts said. For criminal penalties, prosecutors must prove that a music pirate acted "willfully," either sharing for financial gain or distributing music with a total retail value higher than $1,000.

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