‘Shell-shocked’ lawmakers shy away from online piracy in new Congress

Nearly a year after a wave of online protests killed two anti-piracy bills, lawmakers are skittish about moving forward with legislation aimed at cracking down on websites that illegally distribute copies of movies and music.

ADVERTISEMENT
The House's Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Senate's Protect IP Act (PIPA) grabbed national attention when Wikipedia, Reddit and scores of other websites went dark on Jan. 18 to protest the bills. The public outcry over the bills led lawmakers to pull their support, and spurred others who were previously quiet on the anti-piracy measures to speak out in opposition.

The fracas over SOPA and PIPA a year ago is still fresh on the minds of lawmakers, making it doubtful that similar legislation will surface in the opening months of the 113th Congress.

"I think people are shell-shocked from that," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who was a vocal opponent of SOPA.

"It was sort of an unprecedented experience that members do not want to repeat," she added. 

Members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees have yet to even hint at efforts to revisit anti-piracy legislation this year.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is taking a wait-and-see approach to piracy legislation, an aide said. Leahy, who authored PIPA, has said he remains committed to addressing illicit websites.

“The problem of Internet piracy and the sale of counterfeit products online has not gone away. Sen. Leahy continues to monitor law enforcement actions, significant developments in the courts and voluntary industry practices, and all those pieces will help him determine what next steps are appropriate,” the aide said.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, could not be reached for comment. But Ed McDonald, a spokesman for Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), who will head up the Judiciary Committee's intellectual property subpanel this year, said it's "too premature to know" what the path forward would be on Internet piracy issues.

Coble and Goodlatte "haven't had any meetings yet to talk about the agenda," McDonald said. "We need to get direction from the chair to see what he's thinking."

It's difficult to predict where Goodlatte will come down on the matter. Although he was a co-sponsor of SOPA and served as Smith's No. 2 during the fight to pass the bill, the tech industry has typically considered him an ally. Goodlatte is also the co-chair of the Congressional Internet Caucus.

The debate over immigration reform could also push anti-piracy efforts off the agenda for both Judiciary committees. The House and Senate panels are gearing up for what's expected to be a long, drawn out battle to craft immigration legislation in 2013.

The motion picture and recording industries, which were major backers of SOPA and PIPA, say they aren’t pushing lawmakers to revisit anti-piracy legislation this year.

Cara Duckworth, a spokeswoman for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), said the music lobby doesn't plan to advocate for copyright enforcement legislation.

“We’re not focused on that, instead, we’re looking ahead," Duckworth said in an email. "Our business now earns more than half its revenues from an exciting array of digital formats. Our core mission is promoting that dynamic marketplace."

She added that the RIAA's attention this year "will be entirely focused on music licensing issues and voluntary, marketplace initiatives.”

Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Association of America, said the film lobby plans to focus on developing voluntary, industry-led anti-piracy efforts.

“Everyone engaged on these issues agrees that online theft is a problem we need to solve," Bedingfield said. "We look forward to working with the new Congress and the private sector to develop and implement more robust best practices and voluntary efforts to protect the work of creators and makers while promoting an Internet that works for everyone.”

But critics of SOPA and PIPA are skeptical that the fight is over, and say Hollywood will likely get behind another form of anti-piracy legislation this year.

Ed Black, the president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), said Congress' plans on online piracy efforts this year are unclear but "our view has been the big content people are never satisfied, so it is always safe to assume that they will always be trying for something new and something more."

"I think there will be an attempt to find ways to accomplish some of the same goals [as SOPA and PIPA] by more roundabout efforts," he said. CCIA, which counts Google and Facebook as members, strongly opposed both anti-piracy bills.

On Jan. 15, CCIA, Consumer Electronics Association, Twitter, Reddit and other critics of SOPA and PIPA are sponsoring an event at the Newseum that will commemorate the anniversary of the online protests against the two bills.