Studios, RIAA Could Get Justice Department as Copy Enforcement Partner

Message for folks illegally downloading and sharing songs and movies: The colossal power of the federal government could join the copyright holders in bringing you to justice.

A bill moving through the Senate Judiciary Committee would give the Justice Department the power to bring civil complaints—not just criminal charges—against alleged copyright violators, giving a potentially giant boost to actions by the studios and recording companies against illegal users.

The civil system relies on a much lower burden of proof than the criminal system to right wrongs. Under current law, private parties such as the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America may bring civil suits against individuals, but the feds enter the picture only to bring criminal charges.

Under the legislation, promoted for several years by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and also sponsored by the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., DOJ could also confiscate violators’ equipment, such as home computers—all through the civil system, under which a poor defendant doesn’t even get a court appointed lawyer.

Washington-based nonprofit Public Knowledge says the Leahy bill would make the Justice Department into an enforcement arm of the private copyright holders.

“We are concerned that several provisions in this bill could have harmful, if unintended, consequences that would harm consumers,” said Gigi Sohn, Public Knowledge president and co-founder. “Seizing expensive manufacturing equipment used for large-scale infringement from a commercial pirate may be appropriate. Seizing a family’s general-purpose computer in a download case, as this bill would allow, is not appropriate. This bill goes even farther, expanding the penalties under the flawed Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to create new grounds for allowing a family’s computer to be seized if used to circumvent digital rights management, even if for fair uses.”

A House companion bill does not include the provision to allow civil suits by DOJ. If the Senate passes the Leahy Bill, a joint House-Senate conference committee will hammer out the differences.

Ironically, Leahy is a confirmed fan of the Grateful Dead, many of whose early live performances reached wide audiences only through fan recording and distribution that was illegal until the group allowed it.

The Judiciary Committee is expected to take up the bill after Congress returns from August recess.