Lantos Retirement Ripple Bubbles Up in Hollywood

Posted January 11, 2008 at 3:51pm

Though presumably still a year away, entertainment industry lobbyists already are worrying the retirement of Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) could set off a ripple effect that deals a serious setback to their agenda.

When Lantos steps down at the end of this Congress, the thinking goes, he will hand off the gavel of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to fellow Golden State Democratic Rep. Howard Berman. And Berman, in turn, is expected to give up the chairmanship of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property, the panel charged with protecting content creators from copyright infringement and piracy.

Next in line to head the subcommittee: Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), a leading advocate of the “fair use” doctrine, granting legal protections to electronics producers so they can roll out new technologies to manipulate digital content.

Boucher is pushing a bill, called the FAIR USE Act, that would limit the liability of consumer electronics makers and clear the way for consumers to copy and edit works in certain circumstances.

But the movie and music industries — reeling in recent years from revenue lost in part to piracy — contend the measure would gut copyright protections for their content and effectively legalize hacking devices.

And now, entertainment industry lobbyists are engaging in quiet talks about how to respond, possibly by maneuvering to keep the subcommittee gavel out of Boucher’s reach.

“It’s an issue that has gained the attention of people who advocate for copyright interests. I’m sure they’ll handle it with the utmost appropriateness given the serious health situation facing Chairman Lantos, and the class with which Berman himself is handling it,” said one entertainment industry lobbyist.

“But this is a really important subcommittee chairmanship for the copyright community. I’d be surprised if there’s not a quiet lobbying effort to make sure whoever does get the gavel is a committed supporter of intellectual property rights.”

Exactly how that would happen is so far unclear. Decisions about chairmanships are made by the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, and though it considers a range of factors, seniority usually plays a decisive role. Full committee chairmen pick their own subcommittee chairs, again often going by seniority.

In both cases, the process is considered entirely internal, and lobbyists understand they must step lightly or risk blowback. “I couldn’t say that won’t happen,” another industry lobbyist said of a quiet push to make sure Boucher doesn’t succeed Berman. “But I would recommend against it. You can make enemies that way.”

The Recording Industry Association of America declined to comment. Other groups representing Hollywood and the music industry said they wouldn’t speculate about the chain of succession on the subcommittee, except to say the next chairman will have his work cut out.

“Whoever is the next chairman, if Berman leaves, will have enormous shoes to fill,” said David Israelite, president of the National Music Publishers’ Association. “Because of the challenges in the copyright world in the new digital age, the next chairman of the subcommittee will have an enormous opportunity to impact the intellectual property situation in the United States.”

Added Angela Martinez, a spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Association of America: “It’s important to us that we have someone on that subcommittee who understands intellectual property and its importance to our economy.”

Berman, whose Los Angeles district is home to many in the industry, has served since 2005 as now-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) chief liaison to Hollywood. And as the top Democrat on the subcommittee, he has been their champion on copyright issues, sponsoring legislation creating criminal penalties for mass downloaders of protected content and easing the way for online companies to get permission to sell music.

Boucher’s fair use bill, meanwhile, hasn’t budged since it landed in Berman’s panel in March, despite endorsements from the Consumer Electronics Association, the American Library Association, the Home Recording Rights Coalition and others.

Electronics makers are eager to gain legal cover to start manufacturing gadgets that will allow consumers to edit content — a spokeswoman for the CEA called it “essential in promoting American innovation.”

But even if Boucher takes over the subcommittee, prospects for the measure are murky. His co-author, Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), under investigation by the Justice Department for his ties to jailed former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, announced last week he is retiring.

Entertainment industry lobbyists said they have started a concerted effort to peel off its co-sponsors, and last month three Republicans withdrew their support. Several said they don’t believe it has the votes to advance.

Nevertheless, one lobbyist said, Boucher would “complicate things” for the industry.

“It’s not just what he would get,” the lobbyist said. “But that we couldn’t get anything we want.”