Last week, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee introduced S. 3325, the "Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights Act of 2008," a bill that proposes a number of alarming changes to copyright law. The bill is the Senate's gift to big content owners, creating new and powerful tools -- many of which will be paid for by your tax dollars -- for the entertainment industry to go after infringers. But it doesn’t offer a lick of protection for legitimate innovators and technology users that may be buried by the copyright juggernaut.
One of the bill's most disturbing changes would give the Attorney General new powers to sue individuals on behalf of rightsholders like the MPAA and the RIAA. Bill proponents claim that these new powers, which would allow the AG to bring "milder" civil as well as criminal actions, are necessary because some offenses don’t rise to the level of criminal conduct. This justification just doesn’t make sense. If it’s a low-level offense, why should our top cops pursue it? Traditionally, those types of offenses can and will be pursued by the parties who believe they have actually been harmed, namely the copyright owners. The real "problem" may be that some so-called "offenses" can’t be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard for any crime. This new provision would allow the AG to sidestep that high burden of proof -- a burden that gives the average citizen an important measure of protection from the overwhelming power of the government.
The Attorney General of the United States surely has better things to do than serving as muscle for the entertainment industry, especially when that industry is clearly well-capable of enforcing its copyrights on its own.
The bill also seeks to create an Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator position in the Executive Office, with an advisory committee consisting of members from various government departments and agencies. Given the extraordinary budget pressures lawmakers now face, it is shocking that they would consider funding a new layer of federal bureaucracy. In fact, the DoJ itself has spoken out against similar Congressional efforts to rearrange its priorities with bureaucratic meddling.
There's more: another provision creates new categories of infringement at the border, suggesting that individuals need the permission of copyright holders to bring copies of music or movies with them overseas or even through the United States. If the bill is passed, something as simple as taking your iPod to Mexico could be considered an infringement of the copyright owners’ distribution right. The bill also proposes to lengthen the list of items that can be impounded as part of a civil copyright infringement suit, while broadening the list of articles that can be seized and destroyed by the government. (Meanwhile, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) is being negotiated in secret by a number of countries, pairing this unprecedented public threat with a potentially catastrophic secret one.)
Whether or not you believe the entertainment industry’s claims about the extent of the piracy problem, there is no reason the American taxpayer should be picking up Hollywood’s legal costs while movie studios are celebrating record box office returns and record-breaking single-title revenues.