Lawmakers raise questions about copyright enforcement bill

A handful of lawmakers, law professors and consumer groups have raised objections to a new U.S. copyright bill that could significantly increase the fines for copyright infringement.

The Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act (or PRO IP Act), debated before a congressional subcommittee Thursday, would allow courts to assess copyright infringement damages for each piece of a compilation or derivative work found to infringe copyright, instead of treating the compilation as one infringement.

The maximum fine for infringing three songs in one compilation would increase from US$150,000 to $450,000 under the bill, introduced Dec. 5, said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a consumer rights advocacy group. The fines for infringing five poems in one compilation would rise from $150,000 to $750,000, said Sohn, referring to a letter signed by 25 IP professors.

The bill would also make it easy for courts to forfeit computers and other property alleged to be used for infringement in civil copyright lawsuits, and it would allow the U.S. government to pursue criminal copyright enforcement before the creator registers a work or product with the U.S. Copyright Office.

“While we agree that enforcement of intellectual property laws is essential to encouraging creativity, certain provisions in the proposed act risk undermining this essential goal by threatening consumers with an overbroad and inapposite enforcement regime,” Sohn told the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property. “These provisions of the bill …. represent a step away from a rational, realistic copyright regime.”

The bill will hurt the consumer electronics industry, with companies that make recording and copying devices scared to introduce new products because of a fear of lawsuits, added Representative Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat.

“The effect on innovation will be real and it will be adverse,” Boucher said.

But supporters of the bill said it’s needed. Counterfeiting and piracy cost U.S. companies between $200 billion and $250 billion a year, said Representative John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Conyers, the primary sponsor of the bill, tried to dispel criticism that the legislation was targeted only at music and movie piracy. Counterfeit drugs, automobile parts and airplane parts are “placing human lives at risk,” he said.

Copyright theft also costs hundreds of thousands of jobs, added James Hoffa, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a large trade union. Members of the union deliver DVDs, CDs and video games from legitimate companies, he said. “When pirated DVDs and CDs are sold on a street corner in an underground economy, we lose jobs,” he said.

Government agencies also lose tax revenue through pirated or counterfeit goods, Hoffa said. “Lost tax revenue has a significant and potentially debilitating impact on American working families,” he added. “By most anyone’s calculations, the bridges and roads that our members both build and travel over are in a critical state of disrepair throughout the country.”

While Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, called copyright infringement “massive,” others raised concerns that the bill goes too far. Representative Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from Silicon Valley in California, noted that the bill could increase the penalties for infringing a 10-song CD from $150,000 to $1.5 million. “I think that’s unreasonable,” she said.

Public Knowledge’s Sohn noted that a Minnesota woman was fined $222,000 for 24 songs in a court case that ended in October. She called on the subcommittee to kill the portion of the bill that would increase copyright damages for compiled works.

“I don’t think anybody’s arguing that statutory damages are inadequate,” she said. “I’m not sure that increasing penalties 10 fold or 20 fold does anything other than stop legitimate innovators.”

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