Legislation that would expand the definition of criminal file-trading over the Internet was approved Wednesday by the US House Judiciary Committee.

The Piracy Deterrence and Education Act of 2004, which now moves to the full House for a vote, potentially expands the number of people who could be charged with criminal copyright violations by expanding the definition of criminal copyright infringement. In addition to people who "willfully" distribute copyright works such as music files, the expanded definition includes people who "knowingly" distribute copyrighted works "with reckless disregard of the risk for further infringement."

Opponents of the bill say it would make criminals out of peer to peer (P-to-P) software users. P2P United, a lobbying group representing P-to-P vendors, advocates instead that the recording industry work with P-to-P vendors on a way to pay artists for downloads, said Adam Eisgrau, executive director of the group.

Jail the fans - good business?

"Putting downloaders behind bars, or decimating their college funds with civil lawsuits, won't put the genie of peer-to-peer technology back in the bottle or put real money in the pockets of real artists for the literally billions of inevitable downloads that survey after survey clearly show will increase every year for the foreseeable future no matter how much Congress continues to allow entertainment conglomerates to 'offload' their responsibility to enforce their copyrights onto the American taxpayer," Eisgrau said by email in response to a request for comment.

The bill that passed the full committee was an improvement over an earlier version of the bill, but the legislation is still "too vague" and could create criminal violations for material that's stored on a computer network, said Public Knowledge, an intellectual property law advocacy group. The maximum criminal penalty in the bill is five years in prison for a first offence, and the bill includes a civil penalty for some copyright violations of up to $10,000 per violation.

The bill, sponsored by Representative Lamar Smith, a Republican, would also authorize the Department of Justice to send notices outlining the penalties for file trading to the ISPs (Internet service providers) providing access to those file traders. The newest version of the bill makes the warning program voluntary instead of required for ISPs and it allows ISPs to recover their costs for participating in the program, a change from the earlier version of Smith's bill.

Jail in your eyes

The goal of the legislation is to help law enforcement agencies prosecute more copyright violations, Smith said in a statement.

“Piracy of intellectual property over the Internet, especially on peer-to-peer networks, has reached alarming levels," he added. "The overhead for pirating copyrighted material relative to other illegal economic activities is minimal, the profits are exceptional, and the relative risk level of attracting the attention of law enforcement officials is low. Low risk and high profit is how criminals view piracy."

Spyware in the crosshairs

Separately, the committee also approved a spyware bill that would create criminal penalties for those who access a protected computer without authorization and use it to commit a federal offence, violate personal privacy or impair computer security. 

The Internet Spyware Prevention Act. sponsored by Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, complements the Securely Protect Yourself Against Cyber Trespass Act (SPY ACT), approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee in June. SPY ACT focuses on the definition of spyware and requires computer users give consent before information-collecting software is installed.