Widening a cross-border split about Internet piracy, a Canadian judge ruled Wednesday that sharing music online was legal while U.S. lawmakers moved to turn some file-sharers into federal criminals.
Judge Konrad von Finckenstein's legal blessing was an unexpected setback to the music industry's expanding international effort to stop free and unauthorized downloads. But experts said the judge's ruling hinged on elements of Canadian law not found in many other countries, including the United States.
In fact, lawmakers and prosecutors in Washington headed in the opposite direction.
A House Judiciary Subcommittee approved by voice vote a bill that would make it easier to bring criminal charges against file-sharers. And Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft announced the creation of a new task force to strengthen the Justice Department's efforts to battle music, movie, video game and software piracy.
The bill drew brickbats from file-sharing advocates, who argued that a new study undermined entertainment industry claims about the evils of downloading. The study, conducted by two economists at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, found no meaningful relationship between the rise in file-sharing and the years-long slump in compact-disc sales.
The bill by Reps. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Howard Berman, D-Calif., would lower the threshold for criminal copyright infringement, making it a federal crime to knowingly offer 1,000 or more copyrighted works through the Internet.
By contrast, von Finckenstein rejected efforts by the major record companies to force a group of Internet service providers to identify 29 customers in Canada who each allegedly offered more 1,000 songs through file-sharing networks. In addition to ruling that the music companies failed to provide enough evidence of wrongdoing, the judge said that downloading songs for personal use and offering them to others online were legal under Canadian law.
The Canadian Recording Industry Assn. said it expected to appeal .
The Smith-Berman bill aims to up the ante by encouraging federal prosecutors to enter the fray. In addition to making it easier to prove criminal copyright violations against people who offer a large number of copyrighted files online, the bill would target those who record a movie as it's being shown in a theater or offer one or more copyrighted works prior to their commercial release. For first offenders, the maximum penalty would be three years in federal prison.