The entertainment industry is pushing Congress to approve a bill that could send thousands of Internet music and movie downloaders to jail, but the legislation faces opposition from groups that say it would unfairly punish consumers.
The package combines eight bills that the entertainment industry supports as part of a large-scale effort to crack down on the rampant spread of piracy on the Internet. The bill also would criminalize using a video recorder to copy films while they are still in the theater, and allow the Justice Department to file civil lawsuits against song-swappers.
The bill is one of many that Congress could consider as it convenes today for a post-election lame-duck session, but sources familiar with the legislation said that it is impossible to predict whether lawmakers will act. Opponents of the bill fear that its supporters will slip it into one of the massive legislative packages that Congress often passes at the end of the year.
"We take nothing for granted," said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a Washington, D.C.-based civil liberties group. "There's not a lot of time, but if you look away for a second, this bill can just shoot through."
Public Knowledge has joined the Consumer Electronics Association, Verizon, the American Conservative Union and other groups in opposing the package, which so far has steamrolled toward passage with little opposition.
Music and movie industry officials said that Congress already has shown its support for the measures in the bill.
"It's not like these bills came out of nowhere. All of these bills had been passed by one house or another," said David Green, vice president for technology and new media at the Motion Picture Association of America.
One of the most contentious measures in the package, the Piracy Deterrence and Education Act, won approval in the House of Representatives earlier this year. The PIRATE Act sailed through the Senate.
The first bill would allow prosecutors to seek jail terms of up to five years for people who make 1,000 or more songs available for download on peer-to-peer networks such as Kazaa and eDonkey. The PIRATE Act would allow the Justice Department to seek civil damages against illegal file sharers. Under current law, the Justice Department only can prosecute criminal copyright violations.
If the package became law, prosecutors no longer would have to prove that a suspect willfully distributed illegally copied files. This is a problem, opponents said, because most Internet file-sharing software is designed to automatically share the contents of people's music libraries with other members on the network. This means that people with more than a thousand songs on their computers could face jail time even if they never intended to share their music, they said.
"It's really unprecedented in our copyright law to send somebody to jail unless theyve done something willfully," said Sarah Deutsch, vice president and associate general counsel at Verizon Communications. "Since so many digital devices today hold thousands and thousands of songs, hundreds of thousands if not millions of people will face liability."
Green said that prosecutors would still have to prove that defendants knew they were illegally sharing the files.
The copyright package is almost a consolation prize for the entertainment industry, which spent much of this year urging Congress to pass the Induce Act, an attempt to drive song-swapping networks out of business by exposing them to monetary damages for inducing people to illegally share files.
The Induce Act failed after a broad group of free-speech advocates, technology companies and Internet service providers complained that the measure could inadvertently target popular, legal devices like the iPod.
The recording industry has seen its sales and profits plummet as the popularity of peer-to-peer file swapping has risen. Compact disc sales fell from a high of $13.2 billion in 2000 to $11.2 billion in 2003, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, which put much of the blame on an exponential increase in file sharing. CD sales bounced back in early 2004, but have not reached their previous high levels, the RIAA said.
In addition to stumping for stiffer copyright laws, the recording industry has sued more than 6,000 suspected song-swappers since September 2003.
The major Hollywood studios so far have avoided a similar fate, in part because it is more time-consuming to download feature-length films. Still, they are working to prevent a similar siphoning off of their profits. Earlier this month, MPAA Chairman Dan Glickman announced that the association will sue people suspected of Internet movie piracy.