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Representative John Conyers (D-MI) has put his progressive reputation and committee authority behind H.R. 4279, the so-called PRO-IP Act (the acronym stands for: "Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property").

The act was recently passed by Conyers' judiciary committee and will now work its way onto the legislative schedule. It is backed by all the usual industry suspects (grouped together under the name of "the Copyright Alliance") and is a potential disaster insofar as it threatens to impede fair use and balanced enforcement while increasing the criminalization of non-commercial copyright infringement. H.R. 4279 would also create a new "Copyright Czar" within the federal government, a position that appears to be loosely modeled on the "Drug Czar" positions that have done so much to perpetuate the wasteful, expensive, and ineffective "war on drugs."

Those of us who value our digital rights and civil liberties should be concerned...

While there is still the possibility that this bill could undergo substantive changes as it progresses through the house machinery, Internet users, civil rights activists, and technology consumers should urge legislators to restrict its current scope.

The effort to pass H.R. 4279 is bankrolled by multi-billion dollar corporate interests like Microsoft, News Corporation, and NBC, as well as industry lobby groups such as Business Software Alliance, the Motion Picture Association of America, and the Recording Industry Association of America. The so-called "Copyright Alliance" is just another lobby formed by these same organizations (check out their list of members). These organizations have made every effort to encroach on the rights and liberties of consumers through their efforts to limit legal file sharing, police Internet traffic, and conduct illegal digital surveillance. They represent an extremely regressive vision of the Information Age and have no qualms about imposing that vision on their customers by any means necessary.

As this analysis of the bill by the non-profit org. Public Knowledge details, there are many aspects of H.R. 4279 worth saving. Nevertheless, it advances a regressive IP agenda on a number of fronts. According to the summary, the bill would do the following:

Amends the federal criminal code with respect to intellectual property to: (1) enhance criminal penalties for infringement of a copyright, for trafficking in counterfeit labels or packaging, and for causing serious bodily harm or death while trafficking in counterfeit goods or services; and (2) enhance civil and criminal forfeiture provisions for copyright infringement and provide for restitution to victims of such infringement.

Establishes within the Executive Office of the President the Office of the United States Intellectual Property Enforcement Representative to formulate a Joint Strategic Plan for combating counterfeiting and piracy of intellectual property and for coordinating national and international enforcement efforts to protect intellectual property rights.

Directs the Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and the Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to appoint 10 additional intellectual property attaches to work with foreign countries to combat counterfeiting and piracy of intellectual property.

The creation of these new positions and procedures are based on the warped world-view of the MPAA and the RIAA whereby copying=counterfeiting=crime. The networked digital environment is just not that simple and the law enforcement powers of the U.S. government should not be based on such a lopsided foundation. The Congress can do better.

H.R. 4279 is not the kind of project a well-established, populist democrat like Conyers needs to get behind. And yet, his support reflects a troubling relationship with big-money telecommunications and culture-industry interests. Take a look at Conyers' career campaign contributions on That's right, AT&T, Time Warner, Sprint-Nextel, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, and the National Association of Broadcasters all appear in the top 20. OpenSecrets also reports that Comcast and Clear Channel Communications ranked high among Conyers' donors during the 2006 election cycle. Dig a little deeper and we learn that (in addition to labor unions) big Telecom and Technology firms still represent the largest proportion of Conyers' PAC donations during 2007-2008.

Whether or not a direct connection between these contributions and Conyers' voting patterns exists remains to be proven. However, the point is that Conyers has made his career by standing up for transparency, civil rights and liberties against moneyed corporate interests (like Tobacco and Guns) and Republican cronyism.

Conyers was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, has been a strong voice against the Iraq war and a staunch critic of the Bush administration. As a result, he enjoys a reputation as a progressive bulwark. All the more reason he does not need to put his hands in the pockets of big telecom and tech corporation

Instead of unconditionally supporting HR 4279 - a bill that threatens the freedom of the Internet and curtails innovation in the name of Big Business - Conyers should use his authority to re-shape the bill. He has a responsibility to his constituents and to other members of the Democratic Party whose interests do not lie with the Telecommunications and Software Industry giants. As a result, Conyers should not favor tougher enforcement of restrictive copyright laws. Unless it is radically transformed, HR 4279 will not support the citizens, consumers, or small-businesses who really need to benefit from the potential of digital technologies. John Conyers is exactly the sort of principled Democrat who could change that.

(an earlier version of this diary was cross-posted on my personal blog, Fringethoughts)

Originally posted to berkeleygrad on Mon May 05, 2008 at 09:38 AM PDT.

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