A federal task force has recommended expanded investigative and prosecutorial powers to combat intellectual property theft ranging from counterfeit drugs to swapping songs over the Internet.
Wiretaps should be allowed to investigate intellectual property theft that threatens health and safety and more investigators should be added in key U.S. cities and in piracy hot spots in Asia and Eastern Europe, the report released Tuesday said.
"With the recommendations put forward by the task force, the department is prepared to build the strongest, most aggressive legal assault against intellectual property crime in our nation's history," U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said.
The report also endorsed the rights of companies to compel Internet service providers to turn over the names of people who have traded songs, movies, software or other copyright-protected items over the Internet.
That power is included in the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, but has been challenged by companies, such as Verizon Communications, which want to protect the identity of their subscribers.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling in favor of Verizon. Other similar cases have been - or are expected to be - brought to the high court.
Ashcroft declined to comment on the Supreme Court's action, saying that his department might have to be involved in future, similar cases. But he defended the task force's recommendations.
"We believe people in the private sector have a responsibility to address these threats in the civil dimension as the law allows them and we have a responsibility to address these matters criminally," Ashcroft told The Associated Press in an interview.
While much of the attention on intellectual property has been focused on protecting songs, movies and computer software, the Intellectual Property Task Force report cited counterfeit drugs, brake pads, cell phone batteries, baby formula and other items that can cost lives as well as cost their makers millions in profits.
Piracy costs American companies $250 billion a year, the report estimated.
Sales of copyrighted materials alone accounted for 6 percent of the nation's gross domestic product in 2002, while companies that produce films, music, books, software and other copyrighted material employed 4 percent of the nation's work force in 2002, the report said.
The report also included principles to be adopted when evaluating pending legislation. One of the principles backs a provision of current copyright law that makes it a crime to circumvent software locks that protect movies on DVD, songs on CDs or other software.
A bill has been introduced in Congress that would allow people to use software to circumvent those locks for the purpose of making backup copies or for other limited purposes, known as "fair use."
Ashcroft said he supports fair use and is not targeting individual rights.
"We are trying to interrupt a massive hemorrhaging occasioned by significant networks of organized individuals who are stealing billions of copies of copywritten materials on a regular basis," Ashcroft said. "This is illegal distribution, not fair use."
By Gary Gentile