Rep. Lamar Smith is preparing to introduce a bill in Congress that would increase penalties for copyright infringement and broaden the scope of the DMCA and other copyright laws, according to a news.com story. (The story seems to get some details of the bill wrong, so be sure to look at the bill itself before drawing conclusions.)
The bill would increase penalties for small-scale, noncommercial copyright infringement beyond even their current excessive levels. For example, noncommercial distribution of copyrighted material worth $2500 or more would carry a maximum sentence of ten years in Federal prison. Even attempting to commit that level of infringment would potentially carry a ten-year sentence. That’s the same maximum sentenced faced by bribe-taking Congressman Duke Cunningham, whose corruption probably cost taxpayers millions of dollars. It’s also more than the average Federal sentence for manslaughter (33 months), sexual abuse (73 months), arson (87 months), fraud (14 months), embezzlement (7 months), bribery (10 months), or racketeering/extortion (72 months).
The bill would also expand the scope of copyright in several respects. Most interesting to readers here is an expansion of the DMCA’s anticircumvention rules.
Recall that Section 1201 of the DMCA bans circumvention of technical protection mechanisms (TPMs), and also bans trafficking in circumvention devices. The Smith bill would expand the trafficking ban, by redefining “trafficking” as follows:
[T]he term ‘traffic in’ means to transport, transfer, or otherwise dispose of, to another, or to make, import, export, obtain control of, or possess, with intent to so transport, transfer, or dispose of.
In short, where the law now bans distribution of a circumvention device, the bill would also ban possession of a circumvention device with intent to distribute it.
This bill, if passed, would probably increase the DMCA’s chilling effect on research. Currently, a researcher can steer clear of the trafficking provision by keeping any circumvention devices to himself, using those devices himself (lawfully) in the lab. If the Smith bill passes, the researcher would have to worry that a plaintiff or prosecutor will misjudge his intent and bring a case, and that a judge or jury might be convinced that the researcher was eventually planning to distribute the device. Even if the claim of bad intent is baseless, refuting it will be slow, painful, and expensive.
I’m eager to hear the rationale for these expansions. But I wouldn’t be surprised if no rationale is offered, beyond the standard “piracy is bad” mantra or vague claims to be “rationalizing” the statute.