Pennsylvania Cracks Down on Pirates

Pennsylvania lawmakers have passed what some cable-security experts call the most comprehensive and up-to-date anti-piracy bill yet by any state.

The measure criminalizes both cable theft and intentional disruption of service. It also extends beyond video to provide protection for telephony and Internet products and expands protected industries to satellite TV, telephony providers, and wireless communications such as microwave and radio services.

Backers expect Gov. Tom Ridge to sign the bill, which passed the state General Assembly last Tuesday. It becomes law 60 days afterwards.

Theft costs Pennsylvania's cable industry a conservative estimate of $250 million each year, the Pennsylvania Cable and Telecommunications Association told legislators. Local governments share that loss in the form of unrealized franchise-fee revenue.

"This legislation will provide cable companies, other providers of telecommunications services and the law-enforcement community with tools to finally get this problem under control," said the PCTA's president, Bill Cologie.

Cable-security executives were particularly pleased with scaled penalty provisions and strong civil-suit protections.

The new law classifies cable theft as a misdemeanor in the first degree. The penalty elevates to the level of felony for recidivists.

A suspect who possesses 10 to 50 doctored devices and is convicted on a second theft charge would be guilty of a felony of the third degree. If caught with more than 50 boxes, a recidivist could be convicted of a felony in the second degree, which could mean up to 20 years in jail.

Financial penalties are stiffer, too. The new law calls for fines of $250 to $10,000 per illegally doctored box. For a large-scale operation, this would mean greater fines than under federal law, because federal judges interpret federal Cable Act anti-piracy sections to mean that penalties are cumulative and capped at $50,000.

The Pennsylvania law also gives judges discretion to determine if offenses were willful and egregious. If so, the penalty can rise to $50,000 per box.

Another major advance is language that allows a communications vendor to go after suspects who intentionally disrupt service. This will be valuable in the future pursuit of hackers that shut down or alter corporate Web sites, or use a company's cable-modem platform to harass or crash other modem users.

The measure also allows for prosecution of out-of-state pirate vendors.

"This law is unique in that it expands the protection of state law to prohibit not just access, but protects software, devices and other methods of disruption and illegal service acquisition, no matter how they are offered," said Geoff Beauchamp, counsel to the Broadband Internet Security Task Force, which helped draft the Pennsylvania law. "It's a very good statute for the 21st century, better than the federal law."