Copyright bill moves forward

Congress advances legislation to expand copyright protection of online material and to limit ISPs' liability for customers' infringements.

Congress advanced legislation today that would expand copyright protection of online software, literature, and music, but would limit Net access providers' liability for infringements made by their customers.

The Senate Judiciary Committee cleared the so-called Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), legislation that combines the WIPO Copyright Treaties Implementation Act and Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act.

The House Judiciary Committee cleared See related story: 
Congress tackles high-tech issues companion legislation earlier this month, which didn't include the broad protections for ISPs but is expected to do so before the bill goes for a full floor vote. The Senate is now able to schedule a full vote as well.

After a string of compromises between intellectual property owners, libraries, and computer makers, the version of the DMCA passed today ratifies international treaties to strengthen copyrights for digital works and sets up liability "safe harbors" for service providers or directory sites such as Yahoo.

Pushed by the software and music recording industries, who say the Net makes it easier to steal and redistribute their intellectual property, the bill clarifies that ISPs and Net directories don't have to police for copyright violations and are not responsible for infringements unless they have knowledge of such activity or gain economically from it.

In addition, ISPs will be exempt from legal action for caching temporary copies of material or linking to a site that contains infringements. However, the safeguards only apply if ISPs act "expeditiously" to remove illegal copies of intellectual property when they are made aware of the infringement.

The bill passed today also aims to smooth out the controversy over a provision in the bill that makes it a crime to create or sell any technology that could be used to break copyright protection devices.

Opponents of the so-called black-box provision argued that it outlawed reverse engineering, which often is necessary to establish interoperability between computer products. Libraries and schools worried the condition would "put a digital fence" around material they are entitled to access under the "fair use" stipulation in the existing law.

The narrow exemptions to the black-box provision adopted by the Senate Judiciary Committee state that for the purpose of interoperability, technology may be developed to bypass copyright protections. Also, libraries and schools may circumvent copyright barriers to shop for materials, but they must delete the copies when done analyzing software or digital books, for example.

Moreover, the committee adopted an amendment directing the Copyright Office to conduct a six-month study on how the law needs to be updated to address distance learning applications. For example, educators now can use portions of copyrighted material to teach via television, but the same allowance isn't clearly laid out when it comes to using video clips or passages from books in a multimedia environment.

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