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House bill calls for up to 3 years in prison for illegally distributing unreleased movies, songs

Newsday | April 21, 2005

It won't win an Oscar, but it may be Hollywood's favorite title of the year: The Family Entertainment and Copyright Act.

The bill, passed on Tuesday by the House, proposes up to 3 years in prison for anyone who electronically distributes a movie that hasn't been released on video or DVD, or songs or software that haven't been released to the public.

Experts said the bill focuses on expanding the types of activities covered under copyright law rather than increasing the penalties. Current law provides for up to 5 years and up to $250,000 in fines for copyright infringement.

The bill, which awaits the president's signature, also calls for up to 3 years' imprisonment for anyone who illegally distributes a copyrighted work for profit, distributes pirated material worth more than $1,000 or videotapes movies in theaters. Subsequent offenses carry up to 10 years in prison for copyright infringement of pre-release movies for financial gain.

That means someone who has a movie on his or her computer that can be shared via a file-sharing software could face up to 3 years in prison, said Fred von Lohmann, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based organization supporting civil rights online. "It seems to me that that's not likely to be the first priority, but it is theoretically possible," he said.

Scott Christie, a former federal prosecutor who handled copyright cases, said criminalizing the videotaping of movies is necessary as the quality of camcorders improves the quality of such movies. "Nowadays, people who engage in that conduct can produce a fairly good quality copy which they can then upload to the Internet and allow thousands or hundreds of thousands of people to download," he said.

"I'm very troubled by that because I'm concerned about the abuses it could lead to," said Jonathan Ezor, a professor at Touro Law Center in Huntington Station, noting that untrained movie theater employees could detain people.

Current law provides for up to 5 years and up to $250,000 in fines for copyright infringement.

The Motion Picture Association of America claims the law is necessary to reduce the $3.5 billion a year in piracy by traditional means - illegal copying and distributing videotapes and DVDs - and the undetermined losses of piracy online.

John Feehery, spokesman for the association, said 90 percent of piracy originates from camcorders. He said the penalties proposed in the bill are appropriate. "Many of these people who do this type of activity are involved in criminal gangs. This is the new crack. They get a bigger profit margin - some of these gangs - from distributing stolen DVDs than they would from drugs. A lot of these gangs are diversifying into this business."

Bob Barnes, 52, a Fresno, Calif., bus driver whose name and address were subpoenaed two years ago by the Recording Industry Association of America during one of its crackdowns against users of Kazaa, said he agreed that the industry needs to end piracy, but said it could be going to far.

"We're talking about theft, and we're talking about theft of new material," he said, but he added, "The penalties are steep."

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