American authors and online merchants are urging Congress to boost protection of intellectual property on the Internet, claiming huge losses from theft and fraud - much of it originating outside the United States.
American novelist Scott Turow has written numerous best-selling legal thrillers. He appeared on Capitol Hill last week to testify about the online theft of his latest work, Innocent.
"Within the first week or two that it was available for sale, I had friends inform me that there were pirated versions of my book available [on the Internet] at a fraction of the price, which legitimate venues were selling," noted Turow.
Also appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee was the chief of Rosetta Stone, a U.S. foreign language instruction company whose courses can be purchased online. Tom Adams said a Google search of Rosetta Stone will yield dozens of Internet websites mimicking Rosetta Stone and selling pirated or fabricated versions of its materials.
"None of these are legitimate website home pages of rosettastone.com, although they look very similar," said Adams. "The entire purpose of these websites is to deceive the U.S. consumer."
Adams said Rosetta Stone regularly gets calls from angry consumers complaining about faulty products they unwittingly purchased from counterfeiters and Internet pirates.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said intellectual property theft on the Internet is pervasive and costly.
"Copyright piracy and the sale of counterfeit goods are reported to cost the American economy billions of dollars a year, thousands of lost jobs," said Leahy. "The Internet needs to be free and open, but not lawless."
Can the Internet be Policed?
Policing Internet piracy is difficult because many counterfeit websites are set up abroad, in countries like Russia and China. But Leahy is attempting to strengthen U.S. enforcement capabilities by supporting a bill that would empower the Department of Justice to take action against Internet service providers, search engines, payment processors and online advertising networks that do business with rogue websites or fail to block them.
The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act was unanimously approved by the Judiciary Committee last year, but it failed to reach the Senate floor. Senator Leahy says he hopes the bill fares better this year, and is eventually signed into law.
The Role of Online Business
Backing the effort is Go Daddy.com, a U.S.-based Internet domain registrar and Web hosting company. General counsel Christine Jones says Go Daddy understands the problem of Internet piracy and wants to be part of a solution.
"We [i.e., domain registrars] sit at the on-ramp to the Internet," said Jones. "Every single website operator must have a domain name to function. We understand how easy it is for the bad guys to put up a website, copy a few books or foreign language CDs, launch their online business, and start collecting money."
But not everyone is thrilled with the proposed legislation. A representative from U.S. Internet service provider Verizon warned the Senate panel of the bill's potential to enmesh American companies in extraterritorial disputes with foreign entities. That concern was echoed by Denise Yee, an attorney for Visa, a global payments corporation.
"We [i.e., Visa] are not well-positioned to identify counterfeit or copyright-infringing content," said Yee. "IP [i.e., Intellectual Property] owners are best situated to bring instances of infringement to our attention, but they rarely do. Where legality is not clear, we have no authority to decide what is lawful."
Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon worries that the proposed bill mandates burdensome and draconian measures that will stifle the Internet as an engine of economic growth and jobs.
"Keeping the Net open, at home and overseas, is of paramount importance to the American economy because it is increasingly the primary way that the global population will communicate, create and conduct commerce," said Wyden.
But victims of Internet piracy warn of a future in which books are not published and online businesses cease to be profitable, unless strong action is taken. Debate on the problem and proposed solutions, will likely intensify in Congress in the months to come.