By: David Kravets – Wired News – September 10, 2008

A dozen special-interest groups urged lawmakers Wednesday to squelch proposed legislation that for the first time would allow the U.S. Justice Department to prosecute civil cases of copyright infringement.

The Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights Act, (.pdf) scheduled to be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, also creates a Cabinet-level copyright-patent czar charged with creating a worldwide plan to combat piracy. The czar would “report directly to the president and Congress regarding domestic and international intellectual property enforcement programs.”

The bill, a nearly identical version the House passed last year, is strongly backed by the music and movie industries. The House and Senate versions encourage federal-state anti-piracy task forces, the training of other countries about IP enforcement and, among other things, institute an FBI piracy unit.

In a letter to the Judiciary Committee, the groups said granting the Justice Department the power to file civil lawsuits on behalf of Hollywood and others is “an enormous gift” to copyright holders.

“Movie and television producers, software publishers, music publishers, and print publishers all have their own enforcement programs,” the letter (.pdf) said. “There is absolutely no reason for the federal government to assume this private enforcement role.”

The dozen groups include American Association of Law Libraries, American Library Association, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Digital Future Coalition, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Essential Action, IP Justice, Knowledge Ecology International, Medical Library Association, Public Knowledge and Special Libraries Association.

The House version does not contain language granting the Justice Department the ability to sue copyright infringers. The department does prosecute criminal acts of infringement, although rarely.

If the Senate version becomes law, it is not immediately clear how the Justice Department’s expanded powers would work in practice. For example, would the department assume the role of the Recording Industry Association of America, which has sued more than 30,000 people in the United States for copyright infringement since 2003.

Original Wired News Article