As the US Congress gears up for a new session and a new presidential term, some very peculiar things are happening -- driven by lobbyists and legislators seeking to slip things onto the statute book while nobody is paying much attention.
The most ludicrous examples concern -- surprise, surprise -- technology and intellectual property, areas where Congress has traditionally proved clueless and corrupt. In the last year, a whole raft of bills covering the area had been tabled -- eight in all. There was, for example, the Family Movie Act (formerly House Resolution 4586). After that came the Piracy Deterrence in Education Act (formerly HR4077) which makes "offering for distribution" a basis for criminal copyright violation and "making available" grounds for civil violation, regardless of whether there is any distribution or copying, let alone infringement.
Then there was the ART Act (formerly Senate bill 1932), which prohibits the unauthorized use of a video camera in a movie theater; and the PIRATE Act (formerly S2237); and the Inducing Infringements of Copyright Act (formerly S2560), which would criminalize virtually anything that might make consumers more likely to infringe copyright; and ... I could go on, but you will get the point. Although some of these draft bills had honorable aims -- for example protecting the right to avoid objectionable video content -- their main drift was to shore up the business models of content owners who refuse to come to terms with the new realities of a networked world.
As the Congressional term nears its close, legislators have swept most of these would-be statutes into one composite bill, the Intellectual Property Protection Act (IPPA). You might think that this would be a routine administrative process -- you know, put them all into a word processor, make each component bill a section of the omnibus act, reformat the pages and press "print." If you did, then you would be wrong. Some of these measures have been, er, stiffened on the way.
The most outrageous case in point is the Family Movie Act. This was originally intended as a measure to protect consumers' rights to use technology to skip over or mute parts of a movie that they found objectionable. Thus if a DVD contained passages that you deemed unsuitable for family viewing, it would be legal for manufacturers to sell -- and for you to use -- technology that skipped over marked passages during playback.
But in the version of the bill that has found its way into the IPPA, a new prohibition has been added at the behest of the movie companies and broadcast networks, in the form of an additional clause that takes away consumers' rights to skip over advertisements in recorded broadcasts. So the IPPA in its current form proposes to make it a criminal offence to skip over adverts in digitally recorded content. If passed, this would mean that US viewers would be allowed to skip or block material containing sex, violence and bad language, but could be prosecuted if they so much as dared to skip an advertisement.
How's that for effrontery? But there's more -- the PIRATE Act, for example, which would allow the US Justice Department to file civil suits against copyright infringers.
What this means is that the record and movie studios, blanching at their mounting legal bills, have pushed an act that would essentially turn the US Justice Department into their in-house litigation section.