In what is seen as a major move forward for the recording industry's fight against online piracy, two Senate lawmakers today (March 25) introduced legislation that would allow the Department of Justic

In what is seen as a major move forward for the recording industry's fight against online piracy, two Senate lawmakers today (March 25) introduced legislation that would allow the Department of Justice (DOJ) to bring civil copyright-infringement cases, in addition to criminal lawsuits.

The bill -- introduced by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah -- would allow for federal civil claims that carry a penalty of damages and restitution for violators, without a criminal record.

In essence, the new legislation would take the load off the RIAA in pursuing civil penalty lawsuits against online infringers.

The bill, according to Hill sources, was suggested by the RIAA, not DOJ. It is unclear whether the DOJ, overburdened by terrorism concerns, has the manpower to go after egregious copyright offenders in civil suits.

In his remarks introducing the bill, Leahy explains, "In the world of copyright, a criminal charge is unusually difficult to prove, because the defendant must have known that his conduct was illegal, and he must have willfully engaged in the conduct anyway. For this reason, prosecutors can rarely justify bringing criminal charges, and copyright owners have been left alone to fend for themselves, defending their rights only where they can afford to do so. In a world in which a computer and an Internet connection are all the tools you need to engage in massive piracy, this is an intolerable predicament."

Under current law, the DOJ can bring only criminal copyright cases, which include penalties such as fines and prison time, as well as a criminal record. In such cases, the burden of proof is high.

RIAA chairman/CEO Mitch Bainwol applauds the effort by the two lawmakers. "Despite some encouraging signs, piracy continues to plague the music community," he says. "There's an essential role for education, enforcement by copyright owners and federal prosecutions of the worst offenders."

"This bill is a thoughtful and potentially effective means to combat illegal file sharing," says Jay Rosenthal, counsel for the Recording Artists Coalition. "Any law that provides a stronger deterrent against illegal file sharing is good. Until those engaged in this awful practice understand that it is wrong, there will be no chance at a meaningful resolution."

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