Internet thieves must be stopped

These sites – whose operators and computer servers are located throughout the world -- take many forms.  But they have in common one characteristic: they materially contribute to, facilitate and/or induce the illegal distribution of both stolen lawful products, such as movies and television programs, as well unlawful ones, such as counterfeit goods, including prescription medications.

The criminals who profit from these sites use a variety of means to facilitate their goals – advertising, rentals, sales, charges for so-called premium services and club memberships.  And they are commonly assisted—sometimes unwittingly-- by American companies whose ads are placed on the sites by brokers. They are also often aided by individuals or enterprises that provide financial services for the transfer of funds needed, or produced, by their schemes, and whose participation lends an air of respectability.

Bi-partisan efforts in Congress to crack down on these sites are vehemently opposed by people who claim to represent the public interest. But as well intentioned as some of these individuals may be, their efforts, if successful, would harm the public by enabling Internet thieves and counterfeiters to continue profiting from their illegal activities.

Critics wrongly argue that blocking or shutting down these sites is a form of censorship, a denial of First Amendment rights.  That argument ignores, however, that the First Amendment was not intended as a shield for those who steal, irrespective of the means. Theft is theft, whether it occurs in a dark alley or in the ether, and to attempt to distinguish the two is to undermine the most basic tenets of our criminal laws.

According to a study by the International Intellectual Property Alliance, in 2007 more than 11.7 million people were employed by copyright industries in the United States.  This amounted to 8.51 percent of the U.S. workforce. In other words, in 2007 these industries added $1.52 trillion to the economy, or 11.05 percent of the GDP.

The American intellectual property community creates good paying jobs, provides and funds pension and health care plans, and increases tax revenues to cities and towns across the nation. In my industry alone, millions of carpenters, electricians, set designers, caterers, costume designers and others bring home paychecks because of their roles in making movies and television programs that are exhibited around the globe.  And by working to create these products, they are also helping to enhance America’s reputation as a global leader.

Rogue websites threaten the heart of our industry, and in doing so threaten the livelihoods of the people who give it life. These sites do not represent a problem that lies on the far horizon, they are a threat that has arrived. They are here now and they are here in volume.

Recognizing the magnitude of this threat and the urgency needed to address it, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, on a bi-partisan basis, are working on legislation to help address these rogue websites.  These committees have a long history in support of intellectual property rights and we look forward to working with them in the coming Congress.

In the Senate, Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senator Orrin Hatch, a leading committee member, have introduced legislation to provide the Department of Justice new tools to crack down on these illicit operations, both directly, and through action aimed at organizations that help enable the distribution of their illegal goods by providing financial services or advertising revenue

The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (S.3804), is co-sponsored by 16 other Senators on both sides of the aisle.  It is also supported by organizations representing the millions of Americans who make motion pictures, television programs, books, magazines, and music and whose livelihoods are endangered by the rapid growth in rogue and unlawful Internet sites.

As Sen. Leahy has noted, these are the “worst of the worst” online websites.  The operators of these sites knowingly break the law, harm the American economy, deprive American intellectual property owners of their rights, cost American jobs and, in the case of counterfeit prescription drugs, potentially threaten the health and welfare of American consumers.

It will take a strong, sustained effort to stop Internet thieves and profiteers. We believe that Congress and the administration can make a significant contribution to that effort by turning the Leahy-Hatch bill into law, thereby giving law enforcement significantly enhanced tools for addressing a threat that deprives American innovators of the fruits of their labors and, in doing so, menaces our economic health.

Bob Pisano is president and interim CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, Inc. (MPAA)