Bad Bills

If Only It Were a Movie


The MPAA Strikes Back

HB 2121 Rep. Ron Wilson (D-Houston)

The following is a true story.

A few weeks ago, in a Capitol not far away, the empire-like Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) brought a cookie-cutter bill before the Texas Legislature ostensibly designed to buff up state telecommunications code to prevent theft of movies over the Internet. But all is not what it seems. The bill’s language is so broad, the possible consequences so dire, the movie version could be entitled The Trade Group that Ate Telecom Policy.

Wilson, an entertainment lawyer from Houston known for his mastery of legislative rules, wraparound sunglasses, and orange creamsicle-colored Nikes, sponsored HB 2121 for MPAA. But the bill languished in the House Regulated Industries Committee until April 22, when Washington-based MPAA lobbyist Vans Stevenson and sidekick Todd Flournoy rode into town. Suddenly, the bill was resuscitated and heard in committee that night on four hours’ notice.

But all is not lost. A fledgling band of consumer groups and the Texas ACLU are fighting a rearguard action against the legislation, which the MPAA has pitched in six other states and passed in Illinois and Michigan.

The bill proposes to take a one-paragraph section of the penal code that currently bans cable theft and balloon it into a five-page Godzilla that lays waste to the rights of consumers, according to the ACLU. For instance, the bill doesn’t just criminalize theft of movies and other media products over the Internet, it outlaws modifying or connecting a foreign “communication device” to an information system with “intent to harm or defraud a communication service.” The ACLU believes this wording is so general it could force consumers to use Internet software and hardware from the same company. For example, AOL Time Warner could bundle its Roadrunner provider service with its Netscape browser, and if you connected to the Internet with Roadrunner but used Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, you could be open to prosecution for defrauding a communications service. It’s a plan for market domination worthy of SPECTRE or perhaps Dr. Evil.

The ACLU also believes the bill criminalizes the production and sale of “communication devices,” which might create a Texas Small-Business Massacre. Beyond that, critics wonder what the measure means exactly by “intent to defraud,” which, given the bill’s broad language, could include quite a bit. The ACLU’s Adina Levin likens the legislation to Butch Cassidy: “Instead of saying it’s illegal to rob the bank, [the bill] is saying it’s illegal to walk into the bank with the intent of robbing the bank.” The measure sets up tough penalties, including a $2,500 fine for every violation, which could mean each song or movie downloaded or each use of a foreign communications device.

Stevenson, the MPAA lobbyist, says the ACLU and consumer groups are misreading the bill’s language. “You have to have intent,” he says. “You have to use the technology to unlock the movie and steal it.” He says the bill shouldn’t worry consumers who aren’t stealing movies or music over the Internet. The movie that best describes HB 2121, Stevenson says, would be To Catch a Thief, and the controversy surrounding the measure should be entitled Much Ado About Nothing.

ACLU and consumer groups say they would like to avoid a shootout over HB 2121 if the bill’s supporters would agree to more restrictive language that specifically, and exclusively, bans Internet theft. At press time, HB 2121 was still pending in committee, which was waiting for MPAA to raise the curtain on a revised version. How much the bill’s broad language is altered may determine whether consumers get to ride off into the sunset.

Disposing of Regulation

HB 2875 Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton)