Senate gets tough on entertainment piracy

The U.S. Senate has passed new legislation that would enlist law enforcers on behalf of entertainment companies. For the first time, people who secretly videotape movies when they are shown in theaters could go to jail.

Hackers and industry insiders who distribute copyrighted works before their official release date would also face stiffened penalties. Also, prosecutors would be allowed to file civil suits in copyright cases, rather than criminal suits, which require a higher standard of proof.

Copies of hit movies frequently show up on the Internet while they’re still in theaters, thanks to pirates who sneak camcorders into movie theaters to tape films directly off the screen or industry insiders who leak copies to hackers.

Under a bill sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif), those found guilty of theater taping would face up to three years in prison for a first offense, or five years if it was done for profit. Repeat offenders could spend 10 years behind bars.

Movie studios and other copyright holders would be able to sue for damages.

A House of Representatives subcommittee approved a similar bill in March.

Another bill sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) would allow the Justice Department to use the same legal tactics as the recording industry, which has sued more than 3,000 people for distributing its music online.

In criminal cases, prosecutors must prove that defendants knew they were breaking the law, while civil cases only require proof that the act took place.

The Justice Department would get an extra $5 million per year through 2009 under the first bill, while the second would provide an additional $2 million next year to teach U.S. officials how to handle civil copyright suits.

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