Buried inside the massive $388 billion spending bill Congress approved last weekend is a program that creates a federal copyright enforcement czar.
Under the program, the president can appoint a copyright law enforcement officer whose job is to coordinate law enforcement efforts aimed at stopping international copyright infringement and to oversee a federal umbrella agency responsible for administering intellectual property law.
Intellectual property law enforcement is divided among a range of agencies including the Library of Congress, the Justice and State departments and the U.S. Trade Representative.
It is hoped that designating a single overseer to coordinate copyright law enforcement will put some cohesion into the federal effort, said one Senate Appropriations Committee aide.
"You need a head. You need someone who has to answer," the aide said. "If staffed out and funded by a number of different agencies, it never does anything. Agencies don't want to give up good people. When you don't have an agency responsible, their attitude gets to be, 'I don't have to do anything about it."'
Council funded for the first time
The legislation, part of the bill funding Justice Department operations, also for the first time funds the National Intellectual Property Law Enforcement Coordination Council (NIPLAC).
NIPLAC is charged with establishing policies, objectives and priorities designed to protect American intellectual property overseas and to coordinate and oversee implementation of intellectual property law enforcement throughout the government. While NIPLAC has been around since the early 1990s, it has never done anything, and appropriators hope that giving the organization $2 million and a new charter will make the office effective.
"This is an effort to get some air under the wings of that interagency effort," the aide said. "NIPLAC is a good idea, but it hadn't taken off. You really couldn't point to anything they'd ever done."
Congressional aides say Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., chairman of the Senate subcommittee that doles out funding for the Commerce, Justice and State departments, and Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairman of the full Senate Appropriations Committee, took a personal interest in ensuring that NIPLAC was kept in the omnibus spending bill.
But their ambitions for a more robustly funded program were scaled back. Originally the subcommittee had designated $20 million for the program, but fiscal reality forced lawmakers to agree to one-tenth of that.
The legislative effort coincides with the administration's new emphasis on intellectual property protection. Under Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Justice Department has cracked down on intellectual property crimes, and the White House has set up the Strategy Targeting Organized Piracy program, which is designed to curb the production and importation of items ranging from fake purses to pirated CDs and DVDs.
"We welcome Congress' recognition of the challenges the U.S. intellectual property industries face and their efforts to better arm the U.S. government to respond to these challenges," said an official at the Motion Picture Assn. of America. "We're gratified to see the high priority they've placed on tackling international enforcement problems."
While congressional aides said there was a lot of support for the program, its inclusion still raised some eyebrows as there have been questions about the government's involvement in protecting a private, for-profit enterprise.
A recent congressional attempt to approve legislation known as the "Pirate Act," which would allow the Justice Department to file civil lawsuits, was turned back over complaints that it would advance Hollywood's interest at taxpayer expense.
"This isn't the Pirate Act, but I think the taxpayers would be surprised that there's money being spent for copyright enforcement when terrorists and criminals still roam the streets," said Gigi Sohn, president of the nonprofit fair-use advocacy group Public Knowledge. "When every dollar is being counted for education, health care and homeland security, it seems like a strange priority."