NEW YORK - A few weeks ago, Tom Liston stopped giving away his popular security software.
Liston, a network administrator in McHenry, Ill., got wind of a new Illinois law designed to thwart thieves of Internet music and video services. Although his project has nothing to do with piracy, Liston thought the law could also ban the software.
More than a dozen other states have enacted or are considering similar measures after intense lobbying by Hollywood, cable TV providers and pay channels.
The legislation intends to update cable and telecommunications theft laws for the Internet age, outlawing software for downloading movies from the Movielink site without paying and smart cards for getting free satellite, cable or Internet service.
The measures even bar attempts to hide such conduct.
And that has Liston worried, because his software uses concealment to lead hackers and computer viruses astray. In Illinois, felony penalties run to $25,000 and five years in prison.
Critics say the measures not only stifle innovation but could be interpreted as outlawing such common devices as video recorders and music players.
Though movie studios and cable operators deny any sweeping intent, Liston isn't taking any chances. "Until somebody is a test case, you don't know how they are going to interpret it," he said.
Delaware, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia have similar laws and versions await governors' signatures in Arkansas and Colorado. Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas have bills pending.
The Motion Picture Association of America and the Broadband and Internet Security Task Force, a coalition of major cable operators and pay channels, say such measures address industry convergence: Cable operators now provide data and phone services, while Web sites sell movies.
In addition, some state laws are vague on piracy techniques like smart cards that are altered to unscramble transmissions, said Vans Stevenson, the MPAA's state lobbyist.
The new measures attempt to close those loopholes by broadly defining communications services as not just cable and phone but "any service lawfully provided for a charge or compensation."
Critics read the provision as allowing service providers to prohibit anything they don't like - such as digital video recorders that skip commercials or MP3 music players that connect to online music services.
They also say service providers could thwart competition by consenting only to VCRs, TVs and other gadgets from their partners.
Further, they say, violations of service agreements could now become criminal conduct rather than simple breaches of contract. Sharing Internet access over open wireless networks - or even beaming a TV signal to another room with that technology - could be criminalized.
"These laws are really talking about trying to regulate what somebody can do with the services they have already paid for," said Robin Gross of IP Justice, a civil liberties group that focuses on intellectual property.
Supporters say they were taken aback by recent criticisms. They say their efforts go back to 1999 in Pennsylvania and won blessings of current opponents like Verizon Communications Inc., which changed its stance after lobbyists more familiar with copyright law took a closer look.
People "are seeing demons in these bills, where there are no demons," Stevenson said.
Geoffrey Beauchamp, an attorney for the cable group, said the measures' vague language is meant to cover technologies not yet invented.
Although the model legislation has been amended to address concerns, critics say it is still too broad and could produce unintended harm.
They point to the federal Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Though the 1998 law was aimed at protecting copyright works, it has been cited in recent efforts, among others, to thwart companies that make competing printer cartridges.
Others fear the concealment provision also could ban security firewalls, encrypted virtual private networks for telecommuters and systems designed to preserve anonymity and protect privacy.
Supporters say the measures would apply only to services that require payment. Thus, pirated movies on free file-sharing networks wouldn't be covered.
And violations of service agreements would remain contractual breaches, the MPAA's Stevenson said, unless the violation's purpose was to avoid payments - such as additional fees cable operators might charge to hook up additional computers through a wireless network.
Sarah Deutsch, associate general counsel at Verizon, said the MPAA's involvement with telecommunications bills makes them suspect.
"It's not because they are concerned of the theft of Verizon's signal," she said. "They are concerned about theft of copyrighted works."