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Copyright Legislation Unlikely, Both Sides Say

Tech and media leaders say possibility of war and lack of consensus will stall efforts this year.

February 05, 2003|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Leaders of major entertainment and technology trade groups, often at odds over piracy and copyright issues, have found something to agree on: Chances are slim that Congress will jump into their controversies with significant legislation this year.

The shared views, expressed at an investor conference here Tuesday, mark a surprising shift because advocates on both sides of the copyright and piracy debate have frequently turned to lawmakers for help.

The conference was sponsored by Washington-based Precursor Group, an investment research firm. It included representatives of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, the Consumer Electronics Assn. and the Recording Industry Assn. of America.

Several key players said factors ranging from the distractions of a possible war to the lack of consensus among various industries would keep Congress from acting on significant mandates. Initiatives likely to stall include those requiring electronics firms to install controversial copy-protection devices, restricting peer-to-peer file sharing or expanding the rights of consumers to copy their favorite movies and music, the speakers said.

"The prospects for legislation are rather dim," said Fritz Attaway, general counsel for the MPAA, which represents the major film studios. "I don't think any bill will be enacted without a large degree of consensus among the various affected industries."

Last year, the studio trade group -- along with Walt Disney Co. -- was behind the introduction of one of the most divisive bills. That measure, sponsored by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), would have put sweeping technology mandates on electronics makers to protect the entertainment industry's content. The bill mobilized technology and electronics firms, which fired back with their own bills to relax copyright protections and expand consumer rights.

The slowing economy and growing anticipation of war with Iraq also appear to be pushing copyright issues to the back burner. Members of Congress "are going to be distracted," said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Assn.

Some of last year's most controversial bills have not yet been reintroduced, including the Hollings bill and one that would allow record companies to use technology to block file sharing of copyrighted materials, sponsored by Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Mission Hills).

Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) also is working on a widely anticipated bill to speed up the rollout of digital TV by tackling key copyright disputes, but a final draft has not been released.

The RIAA, rather than pushing aggressively for new copyright legislation, recently said it would instead look to private-sector negotiations and enforcement of existing laws.

"There's going to continue to be a lot of congressional sound and fury," said Bruce Mehlman, assistant secretary of the Commerce Department. But Mehlman saw only a 10% chance of any major legislation being passed.

The one possible exception, Mehlman said, might be a narrowly crafted bill requiring the adoption of a so-called broadcast flag, a technology to prevent television programs from being retransmitted over the Internet.

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