WASHINGTON, April 9 (Reuters) -
A digital-copyrightbill introduced last month has inspired howls of protest fromconsumers and high-tech firms who say it could slow technologicaladvances and dictate how consumers listen to music or watch videosat home.
Well-connected lobbyists and everyday users alike have floodedCongress with faxes and e-mails over the last several weeks tolodge complaints against a bill that would prevent new computers,CD players and other consumer-electronics devices from playingunauthorized movies, music and other digital media files.
Sen. Ernest Hollings' bill is backed by media firms such as TheWalt Disney Co. , who fear fast Internetconnections and an array of digital devices such as MP3 players andCD burners will encourage consumers to seek free copies of hitsingles and new movies.
The South Carolina Democrat has said he introduced the bill toencourage media and technology firms to work together to stopdigital piracy.
Instead, it has inspired a flurry of criticism.
A grass-roots group called DigitalConsumer.org, which did notexist a month ago, claims to have signed up 24,000 members, whohave sent off 80,000 faxes to their elected representatives.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, which has also held hearings onthe issue, has received more than 3,500 comments criticizing thebill, a spokeswoman said.
"We haven't received one e-mail in support of the Hollingsbill," said Judiciary Committee spokeswoman Mimi Devlin. "It seemslike there's a groundswell of support from regular users."
High-tech lobbying groups have weighed in as well, arguing thatmandatory copyright-protection technologies would hurt theirability to innovate, and would encourage consumers to hold on totheir older computers rather than buy new models that restrictedtheir activities.
TECH FIRMS WON'T BUDGE, HOLLYWOOD SAYS
In testimony before Hollings' Commerce and Science Committeelast month, Disney Chairman and CEO Michael Eisner accusedtechnology firms like Intel Corp. ofprofiting from digital piracy, and said they were not interested inworking out a way to stop the problem.
Technology firms did not want to testify in the hearing, did notoffer input while the bill was being drafted, and have offeredplenty of criticism but little helpful suggestions since, aHollings aide said.
"They seem satisfied to try to attack it in the press ratherthan trying to make it work," said Hollings spokesman AndyDavis.
Joe Krauss, head of the grassroots group DigitalConsumer.org,said his members have offered plenty of constructivesuggestions.
For example, the group has called for Congress to pass a lawthat would specifically spell out consumers' "fair use" rights,such as the right to record TV shows for later viewing, or transfera CD to a portable MP3 player.
"Until you have a positive assertion of what consumers' rightsare, that debate is left in the hands of media companies' lawyers,"said Krauss, who founded Excite, the now-defunct online portal.
Media firms could also take a page from the anti-piracy playbookof software companies, who concentrate on shutting down large,commercial piracy operations rather than trying to controlindividual users, he said.
The Hollings bill also faces opposition from Vermont DemocraticSen. Patrick Leahy, whose Judiciary Committee handles copyrightissues.
While the Commerce Committee has primary control over the bill,it will be difficult to pass without the cooperation of Leahy andother Judiciary Committee members, staffers from both committeessaid.