The Justice Department said Wednesday it has formed an intellectual-property task force to analyze how the department addresses issues like piracy of software, music and movies.
Led by David Israelite, deputy chief of staff and counselor to the attorney general, the task force will also recommend what the Justice Department should do in the future to combat unauthorized use of copyright material.
"I have asked the task force to look at ways the department can strengthen and improve our efforts to combat theft of intellectual property," said Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Justice spokesman John Nowacki declined to disclose further details on the membership of the task force, or what specific activities it will pursue.
Prior to his appointment as deputy chief of staff in 2001, Israelite served as an aide to Ashcroft and as director of political and governmental affairs at the Republican National Committee.
The task force was created in the wake of criticism by some members of Congress that the Justice Department has not done enough to crack down on digital piracy.
The announcement took place on the same day that a House judiciary subcommittee unanimously approved a bill that would punish file swappers with up to three years in jail for first offenses, and up to six for repeat offenses.
Sponsored by Reps. Howard Berman (D-California) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the bill targets heavy users of peer-to-peer networks and those who pirate copies of feature films. The bill outlines a new piracy deterrence program for the FBI, and calls for the Justice Department to create an antipiracy "Internet use education program." If signed into law, Justice would receive $15 million for investigation and prosecution of copyright-related crimes in 2005.
If HR4077, also known as the Piracy Deterrence and Education Act of 2004, becomes law, it would be the first legislation designed to punish file sharing with jail time. The bill also takes aim at camcorder copiers who sneak into film screenings. Anyone who "knowingly uses or attempts to use an audiovisual recording device in a motion picture theater" to copy a movie could face up to six years in jail.
"This is a common-sense bill that ensures that federal prosecutors have the tools and expertise they need to fully enforce the laws on the books," said Recording Industry Association of America chief executive Mitch Bainwol.
Critics of the bill charge that existing laws already provide stiff penalties for intellectual-property crimes, with equally strong civil remedies that allow copyright holders to bring action against individual copyright abusers. An increased role by the Justice Department in taking action against file swappers would amount to burdening taxpayers to protect the entertainment industry's interests, say critics.
"It's troubling that the government is considering expanding the rights of property owners by broadening the scope of criminal law and lowering the burden of proof," said Adam Eisgrau, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist for peer-to-peer tech industry group P2P United. "There would no longer be a need to show intent to infringe on copyright; prosecutors would only have to prove that the requisite number of copyrighted works were accessible through your computer as a result of your actions"