Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), one of the entertainment industry's most
powerful congressional allies, will remain at the forefront of the
national debate over copyright and illegal downloading after being named
to head a new subcommittee on intellectual property.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) today
officially christened the panel, which will have jurisdiction over copyright, trademark and patent law, as well as treaties intended to protect American intellectual property overseas.
The mounting dangers that piracy poses to the U.S. economy helped spur the move, Specter said after the announcement. "It's a big, tough subject. We lose billions each year. We have a national treasure named Orrin Hatch who is happy to take over the subcommittee, and I was happy to establish it," Specter said.
Given the full slate of non-copyright issues before the full Judiciary Committee, the new panel will help keep intellectual property issues on the front burner, said Mitch Glazier, the Recording Industry Association of America's senior vice president of government and industry relations.
"Any time you have a subcommittee whose job it is to focus on your issues, that's a positive," Glazier said.
Hatch, who chaired the Judiciary Committee until term limits forced him
to turn in his gavel at the end of last year's session, has been one of
the most vocal proponents of expanding copyright protections in
cyberspace in a bid to contain unlicensed downloading. That often put him and colleague Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) -- the committee's
top Democrat -- at odds with technology companies and consumer
advocates, who complained that the lawmakers' efforts to protect
entertainment companies too often suppressed technological
innovation and infringed consumer rights.
Last year, Hatch and Leahy authored a controversial bill targeting peer-to-peer networks like Kazaa, Morpheus and eDonkey that allow users to swap copyrighted content for free. Music and movie industry lobbyists threw their weight behind the bill, but opponents said it was worded too broadly and would also undermine legal protections for popular devices like the iPod music player and TiVo television recorder.
Talks on the bill collapsed shortly before the November election after
a coalition of high-tech companies, consumer advocates and conservatives formed to oppose it. Reintroducing the
bill will not be on the new subcommittee's "immediate agenda," Hatch spokesman Adam Elggren said.
"We've all been a little bit surprised by how willing they've been to
carry the content industry's water," Public Knowledge President Gigi
Sohn said of Hatch and Leahy. She said, however, that the formation of the subcommittee wasn't a surprise, and would probably be a "wash" for
groups like hers that oppose many of the copyright measures backed
by the entertainment industry.
Those groups had hoped Specter's ascension would bring a shift in a battle they say has been stacked against them. But, Sohn added, there was never any doubt that Hatch would continue to be a major player in the debate, subcommittee or no.
"If you thought Hatch was going to ride off into the sunset and not participate in this issue," Sohn said, "you're not in touch with reality."
In addition to piracy and copyright infringement, Leahy hopes to work
through the committee to address the new threats of "phishing" and
"pharming" -- forms of electronic fraud in which perpetrators
impersonate trusted banks, retailers and financial institutions to steal
Internet users' personal data, spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said.
In a statement, Hatch declared that the panel would have an "aggressive agenda" and highlighted the issue of patent reform, saying, "We need strong patent protection to give incentives for innovation and economic growth."