U.S. Joins Industry in Piracy War

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By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 15, 2006

The U.S. government has joined forces with the entertainment industry to stop the freewheeling global bazaar in pirated movies and music, pressuring foreign governments to crack down or risk incurring trade barriers.

Last year, for instance, the movie industry lobby suggested that Sweden change its laws to make it a crime to swap copyrighted movies and music for free over the Internet. Shortly after, the Swedish government complied. Last month, Swedish authorities briefly shut down an illegal file-sharing Web site after receiving a briefing on the site's activities from U.S. officials in April in Washington. The raid incited political and popular backlash in the Scandinavian nation.

In Russia, the government's inability, or reluctance, to shut down another unauthorized file-sharing site may prevent that nation's entrance into the World Trade Organization, as effective action against intellectual property theft tops the U.S. government's list of requirements for Russian WTO membership.

As more residents of more nations get high-speed Internet access -- making the downloading of movies and music fast and easy -- the stakes are higher than ever. The intellectual property industry and law enforcement officials estimate U.S. companies lose as much as $250 billion per year to Internet pirates, who swap digital copies of "The DaVinci Code," Chamillionaire's new album and the latest Grand Theft Auto video game for free.

Such entertainment and other copyright exports -- worth about $626 billion annually, or 6 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product -- are as important to today's American economy as autos, steel and coal were to yesterday's.

More than a decade of hard lobbying by two powerful trade groups, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), has convinced U.S. lawmakers and law enforcement officials that it's worth using America's muscle to protect movie and music interests abroad. Now, lawmakers are calling the trade groups, asking what else Congress and the government can do for the entertainment industry.

Efforts to stem piracy within the United States by targeting peer-to-peer file-sharing networks have produced mixed results. Kazaa -- once the most popular of them and a hard target of the music industry -- has half as many users as it did at its peak three years ago, thanks in part to the music industry's lawsuit and education campaign. At the same time, the total number of peer-to-peer users has grown in the past year, according to Internet traffic researchers.

Overseas, U.S. government officials say, it is in the national interest to work on behalf of Hollywood and other entertainment and intellectual property industries.

The United States does not offer specific dictates on how other nations handle their border controls, said Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Victoria Espinel, "but they need to have an effective intellectual property system for protecting our rights holders abroad."

The U.S. trade representative's office maintains a "priority watch list" of countries that, in its estimate, do not adequately protect intellectual property rights. China and Russia top the most recent list. Unlike the case with Sweden, U.S. government pressure has brought little change in China, home to perhaps the world's most prolific DVD and CD pirates.

An ongoing battle between Swedish authorities and an illegal file-sharing service called the Pirate Bay can be traced to an April meeting in Washington between the Swedes and the U.S. government.

Officials from the State Department, the Department of Commerce and the U.S. trade representative's office told visitors from the Swedish Ministry of Justice in April that Sweden was harboring one of the world's biggest Web sites for enabling the massive and unauthorized distribution of movies, music and games. It uses a file-swapping technology known as BitTorrent that is tougher to contain than earlier systems such as the original Napster, which the U.S. government shut down in 2001, and popular current peer-to-peer services, such as LimeWire.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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