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John Ashcroft is not exactly a hero in Hollywood. But the unapologetically conservative attorney general may share more common ground with liberal movie studio executives than meets the eye. Today, Ashcroft will be in Los Angeles to unveil a series of new Justice Department initiatives targeting intellectual property crime — an expensive problem confronting the film industry. According to Ashcroft’s deputy chief of staff, David Israelite, the attorney general will pledge to add more prosecutors devoted solely to pursuing IP cases and to enhance IP-related training for federal law enforcement agents and foreign investigators. Israelite, who headed the DOJ IP task force that drew up the recommendations, says an assessment of the cost of the initiative has not yet been completed. Israelite calls the effort — which comes just weeks before a presidential election that might change the leadership of the Justice Department — “the most ambitious and aggressive crackdown on IP theft in U.S. history.” As part of the department’s IP initiative, Ashcroft will endorse new legislation to expand the range of copyright charges prosecutors can bring. One recommendation, modeled after existing drug laws, would criminalize the possession of pirated material with intent to distribute. “If you walk into a warehouse and find 10,000 copies of the exact same DVD, it is pretty clear they are not all for private use,” Israelite says. “We’d like to change the law so that prosecutors would be able to make the charge right then, instead of waiting to catch the suspect in the act of selling.” The DOJ task force stopped short, however, of endorsing proposed legislation that would enable the government to sue citizens sharing digital files over the Internet for personal use. Adam Thierer, director of telecommunications studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, says the Justice Department “struck the right chord” by focusing on prosecuting egregious criminal offenders. But Thierer says he is skeptical that new laws are needed. “Congress increasingly wants to legislate on every new copyright matter under the sun,” he says. “New legislation and regulation should only be a last resort.” Since the IP task force was launched in March 2004, Israelite and other DOJ officials have worked closely with the music, motion picture, and software industries. Israelite says he also has met with representatives of file-sharing software companies like KaZaA. Still, not everyone feels they were included in the task force’s process. Fred von Lohmann, a lawyer with the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, which typically opposes strict regulation of intellectual property, says Israelite never met with his organization. “We had a meeting. Then, at the last minute David canceled,” von Lohmann says. Israelite says he reached out to the group, but a meeting was never firmly scheduled.

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