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States take aim at Web file sharing

State attorney generals may be gearing up for action against Internet file-sharing companies, with lobbyists in the movie industry helping to write the declaration of war, the New York Times reported.

A draft of a letter calling file-sharing software such as Kazaa, which is used to download music, movies and other files, “a dangerous product” was recently circulated under the name of the California attorney general, Bill Lockyer.

That letter, addressed to companies that develop file-sharing or peer-to-peer software, called on them to warn their customers about the “legal and personal risks” that they face using the software, such as the importation of pornographic materials and viruses on their computers and possible liability for copyright infringement.

Supporters of peer-to-peer software identified the person who had worked on the last version of the letter as Vans Stevenson, the senior vice president for state legislative affairs at the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

The Times reported that Stevenson acknowledged that he had worked on the letter, but called it “a work in progress” and said that his association was simply doing what such groups do: raising their concerns with lawmakers and trying to work with them.

Stevenson’s involvement has only added fuel to the conflict. “A lobbying organization has sought to influence a public official,” said Adam Eisgrau, executive director or P2P United, a trade association for the peer-to-peer companies.

Tom Dressler, a spokesman for Attorney General Lockyer, said that the document that had been circulated was simply a draft, adding that the dispute was “blown out of proportion” because “there is no letter to comment on.” He said that Lockyer was concerned about problems with file-sharing technology, and hoped that the industry would address the issues voluntarily.

But representatives of the industry say that they had done precisely that by incorporating technologies like pornography filters and virus protection into their products. “The issues in this letter, other than copyright, have really been addressed thoroughly,” said Marty Lafferty, the chief executive of the Distributed Computing Industry Association, a trade group affiliated with Kazaa.

Fred von Lohmann, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a technology policy group, said that the letter expressed a “rather unprecedented legal theory” that, if extended to other products such as cars, would require “an incredibly long list of warnings, such as ‘Warning! The use of this car to commit a bank robbery might subject you to federal prosecution!’”

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