WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Tuesday he favors developing new technology to remotely destroy the computers of people who illegally download music from the Internet.
The surprise remarks by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, during a hearing on copyright abuses represent a dramatic escalation in the frustrating battle by industry executives and lawmakers in Washington against illegal music downloads.
During a discussion on methods to frustrate computer users who illegally exchange music and movie files over the Internet, Hatch asked technology executives about ways to damage computers involved in such file trading. Legal experts have said any such attack would violate federal anti-hacking laws.
"No one is interested in destroying anyone's computer," replied Randy Saaf of MediaDefender Inc., a secretive Los Angeles company that builds technology to disrupt music downloads. One technique deliberately downloads pirated material very slowly so other users can't.
"I'm interested," Hatch interrupted. He said damaging someone's computer "may be the only way you can teach somebody about copyrights."
The senator, a composer who earned $18,000 last year in song writing royalties, acknowledged Congress would have to enact an exemption for copyright owners from liability for damaging computers. He endorsed technology that would twice warn a computer user about illegal online behavior, "then destroy their computer."
"If we can find some way to do this without destroying their machines, we'd be interested in hearing about that," Hatch said. "If that's the only way, then I'm all for destroying their machines. If you have a few hundred thousand of those, I think people would realize" the seriousness of their actions, he said.
"There's no excuse for anyone violating copyright laws," Hatch said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the committee's senior Democrat, later said the problem is serious but called Hatch's idea too drastic a remedy to be considered.
"The rights of copyright holders need to be protected, but some Draconian remedies that have been suggested would create more problems than they would solve," Leahy, D-Vt., said in a statement. "We need to work together to find the right answers, and this is not one of them."
Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., who has been active in copyright debates in Washington, urged Hatch to reconsider. Boucher described Hatch's role as chairman of the Judiciary Committee as "a very important position, so when Senator Hatch indicates his views with regard to a particular subject, we all take those views very seriously."
A spokesman for the Recording Industry Association of America, Jonathan Lamy, said Hatch was "apparently making a metaphorical point that if peer-to-peer networks don't take reasonable steps to prevent massive copyright infringement on the systems they create, Congress may be forced to consider stronger measures." The RIAA represents the major music labels.
Some legal experts suggested Hatch's provocative remarks were more likely intended to compel technology and music executives to work faster toward ways to protect copyrights online than to signal forthcoming legislation.
"It's just the frustration of those who are looking at enforcing laws that are proving very hard to enforce," said Orin Kerr, a former Justice Department cybercrimes prosecutor and associate professor at George Washington University law school.
The entertainment industry has gradually escalated its fight against Internet file-traders, targeting the most egregious pirates with civil lawsuits. The Recording Industry Association of America recently won a federal court decision making it significantly easier to identify and track consumers -- even those hiding behind aliases -- using popular Internet file-sharing software.
Kerr predicted it was "extremely unlikely" for Congress to approve a hacking exemption for copyright owners, partly because of risks of collateral damage when innocent users might be wrongly targeted.
"It wouldn't work," Kerr said. "There's no way of limiting the damage."
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