Congress Adjourns, Digital Copyright Fight Remains

Despite a lot of sound and fury, not to mention a raft of competing and conflicting legislation, the 107th Congress ultimately passed no laws to resolve the long-running and bitter digital copyright feud between the entertainment industry and peer-to-peer file swapping services.

Events outside Capitol Hill, however, are pushing the issue to an acrimonious brink with lawsuits stacking up like cordwood in the courts and lobbyists for both sides already preparing battle plans for the 108th Congress which convenes on Jan. 7.

Despite the giga dollars spent by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA ) and their allies to shut down sites like Napster, piracy is still endemic on the Internet with Kazaa, Morpheus, Madster and other file swapping sites still operating.

The music and movie empires claim the sites are costing the industries billions, and the entertainment industry has been unrelenting in its legal and legislature assault on what it considers to be largest heist in the history of intellectual property rights.

On Thursday, for instance, the RIAA filed a contempt complaint in a New York court against Madster, the file swapping site founded by Johnny Deep and once known as Aimster before America Online forced Deep to change names because of the similarity with AOL’s instant messenger (AIM) service.

In its complaint, the RIAA claims Madster is ignoring a court order to halt the swapping of copyrighted songs and files on its site. In late October, a Chicago judge ordered Madster to disable links to copyrighted material as part of a preliminary injunction after the court found that Madster was violating copyright law.

The RIAA says the site is still advertising $4.95 a month memberships despite the court order. Deep said Thursday Madster, which was still selling memberships on its site Friday morning, would file a response to the RIAA charges.

On Monday, an ongoing case against Kazaa will hit a federal courtroom where a judge is scheduled to determine whether the entertainment industry can sue the file swapping site’s parent company, Sharman Networks, which is incorporated in the island nation of Vanuatu.

Sharman, which distributes the peer-to-peer software to Kazaa users, claims its off-shore status exempts it from a U.S. lawsuit. Sharman contends U.S. companies lack jurisdiction.

Back in Washington, lobbyists for groups including the MPAA, Microsoft, the Business Software Alliance (BSA) and AOL Time Warner were set to meet in the offices of the Center for Democracy and Technology in hopes of breaking the impasse before the 108th Congress convenes.

Lawmakers have consistently urged the parties to resolve the issue among themselves. The alternative, as was amply proved by some of the legislation introduced over the last two years, could be laws that please only one side and infuriate the other, prompting another round of costly legal battles.

In the 107th Congress, which quietly closed its doors on business Friday, outgoing Senate Commerce Chairman Fritz Hollings (D.-S.C.) introduced unsuccessful legislation that would require computer makers to install copy-protection technology in personal computers and other consumer electronic devices. Incoming Chairman John McCain (R.-Ariz.), though, is said to oppose such a plan.

In the House, Rep. Howard Berman (D.-Calif.) championed a bill to allow copyright owners to disable a “publicly accessible peer-to-peer file-trading network.” That bill, too, failed to find traction and died in committee.

What Congress fears is a scenario where the warring parties fail to reach a compromise and legislation that would open the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to amendment, a situation that portends months of contentious debate.