Momentum building for online piracy laws

A bipartisan press conference on the Hill Monday will be the latest sign that years of lobbying on the copyright front by various stakeholders may finally come to fruition in the form of new online piracy laws this year.

Lawmakers from both parties and chambers of Congress will gather at the Capitol with representatives from industry and organized labor to once again denounce the effects of online piracy and counterfeiting on the U.S. economy. 

“The Internet has regrettably become a cash cow for the criminals and organized crime cartels who profit from digital piracy and counterfeit products,” said House Judiciary ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.), who will speak at the event.

“Millions of American jobs are at stake because of these crimes, which is why my colleagues and I will be coming together to carefully craft legislation.”

The legislation in question will likely resemble the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) last year and approved by the full committee. That bill would have given the Department of Justice an expedited process for taking down websites that link to pirated or counterfeit goods and content.

Leahy has promised to reintroduce the bill this year after considering criticism from advocacy groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which claims the expanded government authorities in the bill could lead to online censorship. EFF has argued measures ostensibly intended to fight copyright infringement could potentially lead to the removal of political content and restrictions on free speech. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) threatened to put a hold on the bill last year.

However, opponents face an uphill climb with so many influential trade groups with connections on both sides of the aisle lined up behind Leahy’s effort. Backing it are representatives from content industries including film, music, professional sports and fashion. The Motion Picture Association of America has called fighting online piracy the group’s top lobbying goal, a focus echoed by groups ranging from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the AFL-CIO.

The coalition of support from traditional adversaries makes this year’s push to stem online piracy the most serious in Congress to date. Senate aides avoided articulating a timeline but the issue will likely be front and center with the Senate having recently passed patent-reform legislation.

That issue, closely linked to the online piracy bill, is now in front of the House Judiciary Committee. Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Leahy have worked closely ensure the passage of patent reform and appear likely to extend that cooperation to online piracy.

The Obama administration for its part has urged Congress to accelerate the legislative process, noting that additional authorities for law enforcement agencies could help prevent further piracy. A recent list of legislative recommendations from White House Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator Victoria Espinel included controversial measures such as expanding federal wiretapping statutes to include copyright offenses and mandating longer prison sentences for offenders.

With leaders in both parties and the White House all marching in lock step toward the need for increasing enforcement efforts, the small but vocal opposition appears unlikely to gain enough traction with its warnings of potential censorship to derail the legislative momentum. But supporters are quick to remind opponents that most Americans still don’t regard viewing copyrighted content online illegally to be a crime in the same manner as theft or buying bootlegged DVDs.

“Unfortunately, the problems we are discussing have a larger social and cultural dimension – the sad truth is that many people don’t see the download on their computers of a camcorded movie currently playing in theaters as stolen property,” Conyers said. 

Also appearing at Monday’s event will be Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who chairs the Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property as well as representatives from Columbia Sportswear, Major League Baseball and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The groups contend intellectual property theft costs the U.S. economy more than $100 billion every year along with thousands of American jobs.