Leahy: First Amendment doesn’t protect thieves

The Hill
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on Monday promised he will soon unveil a new version of his controversial bill to combat online piracy.

Leahy’s Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) passed in a committee vote last year despite a small but vocal opposition concerned the bill would allow the Justice Department to infringe on freedom of speech.

Leahy promised to introduce a new version of the bill soon that would take into account First Amendment concerns, but was adamant copyright violators are not protected by the Constitution.

“There’s no First Amendment right that protects thieves. It protects speech,” Leahy said when questioned about free speech concerns with the bill.

The Obama administration has stepped up enforcement actions against sites that link to or provide pirated and counterfeit content in recent months, mostly through domain seizures carried out by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Critics have argued DHS does not allow owners adequate recourse before their sites are seized. Leahy said his staff is working with DOJ to ensure there is adequate judicial review in the bill for sites taken down by mistake to challenge the action.

Standing at Leahy’s side during Monday’s press conference was House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas); the two have worked closely on patent reform and are translating that cooperation into the online piracy arena.

Others showing their support included representatives from Major League Baseball, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and organized labor. Trade groups representing content-based industries such as film, music, and software are also backing Leahy’s efforts.

“For these skilled professionals, online infringement is wage theft,” said Paul Almeida, president of the department for professional employees at the AFL-CIO. The coalition of nine unions in content-related industries is among the strongest supporters of Leahy’s bill.

Leahy flatly rejected the notion that copyright holders should charge less for films or music to reduce the incentive for illegal downloads.

Copyright holders “shouldn’t have to compete with criminals,” Leahy said, comparing illegal download sites with fences that sell stolen goods on the corner.

Almeida noted the bicameral and bipartisan support for legislation and said the combination of business and labor support is unusual enough that there isn’t a name for it currently.

Intellectual Property Subcommittee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) echoed the White House’s call for more aggressive laws that give law enforcement agencies more authority to go after copyright violators.

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