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Copyright Chief: System Will Fail Without More Hill Action, Like Stop Online Piracy Act

The director of the U.S. Copyright Office says that unless Congress continues to take serious steps to combat online piracy -- like the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) -- the U.S. copyright system cannot be sustained.

That is according to the prepared testimony of Maria Pallante, Register of Copyrights, for a House Judiciary committee hearing Nov. 16 on SOPA.

"I would like to be very clear at the outset," she says in her testimony, addressed to committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tx.). "It is my view that if Congress does not continue to provide serious responses to online piracy, the U.S. copyright system will ultimately fail."

She was preaching to the choir since Smith sponsored the bill, which would give industry and government more tools to pursue and potentially shut down sites they believe are trading in pirated content, including TV shows and movies.

"Congress has repeatedly acted to improve enforcement provisions in copyright law over the years, including in the online environment. SOPA is the next step in ensuring that our law keeps pace with infringers."

She said the bill enlists all stakeholders in the crucial task of protecting intellectual property. "The response provided by SOPA is serious and comprehensive. It requires all key members of the online ecosystem, including service providers, search engines, payment processors, and advertising networks, to play a role in protecting copyright interests -- an approach I endorse."

And while computer company critics argue the bill is overbroad, gives too much power to copyright holders to damage online business on suspicion alone, and could even violate the FCC's network neutrality rules by allowing an ISP to cut off a site simply by claiming infringement, Pallante called the bill "measured."

She said it gives government much broader tools than copyright owners, which she said was "a sound policy choice at this time."

She points out that the bill give Justice the sole authority to seek court orders against search engines or ISPs. She said she understands that some would prefer limiting Justice's power to severing rogue sites relationships with ad networks and payment processors, a "follow the money" approach to "starve" those sites. But she said that would not be immediate relief, particularly when the damage could be eminent, as with coverage of a live sporting event or sales of a pre-release film.

"My own view is that there will be times when blocking access to websites may be the only quick and effective course of action and that providing this tool to the Attorney General is therefore a critical part of the equation."

Pallante says the bill does protect due process. She points to provisions requiring notice and an opportunity to respond before a temporary restraining order is issued, except in extraordinary circumstances of immediate and irreparable injury, loss or damage." She also points out that "unlike the Attorney General, copyright owners would not be able to block domain names or websites or otherwise affect the underpinnings of the Internet." SOPA also includes only injunctive relief -- shutting down a site -- rather than monetary relief, so that it "limits the incentive for copyright owners to overreach," she says.

Pallante also praises the bill for making illegal streaming of content a felony, as is distributing an illegal digital or hard copy. Currently, streaming illegal content is only a misdemeanor. "This lack of parity neither reflects nor serves the marketplace," she said, citing Hulu and and HBO GO as examples of the rise of streamed content models.

She said not all streaming is at issue, but only willful criminal activity that would not include innocent activity or "activity that might legitimately be categorized as fair use." She said she believes that SOPA makes that distinction clear, but would not be opposed to making it even more explicit if necessary.