September 24, 2008, 5:06 PM — The U.S. Department of Justice has opposed a copyright protection bill awaiting action in the U.S. Senate, saying the legislation could force DOJ lawyers to do the work that large copyright owners should be doing themselves.
The Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights Act, which was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee Sept. 15, would authorize the U.S. Department of Justice to enforce civil, as well as criminal, copyright laws.
The legislation "could result in Department of Justice prosecutors serving as pro bono lawyers for private copyright holders regardless of their resources," said the DOJ letter, sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. "In effect, taxpayer-supported department lawyers would pursue lawsuits for copyright holders, with monetary recovery going to industry."
The DOJ has limited resources, and collecting copyright infringement awards for private businesses could take away resources used on criminal copyright cases, said the DOJ letter, signed by Keith Nelson, the DOJ's principal deputy assistant attorney general, and Lily Fu Claffee, general counsel at the U.S. Department of Commerce.
"Civil copyright enforcement has always been the responsibility and prerogative of private copyright holders, and U.S. law already provides them with effective legal tools to protect their rights," the letter said.
The legislation would also require the U.S. president to create an intellectual property enforcement office in the White House, and it would expand some civil and criminal penalties for copyright infringement. The requirement to create a new office in the White House would be a "legislative intrusion into the internal structure and composition of the president's administration," the letter said.
Several tech and consumer groups have opposed the legislation, saying it's a huge expansion of copyright protections for the music and movie industries.
The bill simply gives the DOJ a new option for dealing with piracy, Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said in July when he introduced the legislation. "Many times, a criminal sanction is simply too severe for the harm done," he said then.
New government efforts are needed to reduce piracy over the Internet, Leahy added. The bill has 12 cosponsors, both Democrats and Republicans.
"The Internet has brought great and positive change to all our lives, but it is also an unparalleled tool for piracy," Leahy said. "Americans suffer when their intellectual property is stolen, they suffer when those counterfeit goods displace sales of the legitimate products, and they suffer when counterfeit products actually harm them, as is sometimes the case with fake pharmaceuticals and faulty electrical products."
Public Knowledge, an advocacy group focused on Internet users' rights, and the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a tech trade group, praised the DOJ for raising concerns about the bill.
"The private sector has all the resources necessary to pursue cases that companies want to pursue," said Gigi Sohn, Public Knowledge's president. "The government should not be turned into the law firm for wealthy copyright holders."