Copyright law gets a second look

Foes of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act have a second chance to tweak a section that limits people's ability to bypass copy-protection mechanisms.

Foes of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act have a second chance to tweak a section of the controversial law.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Copyright Office began accepting comments from the public on the law's "anticircumvention" section, which limits people's ability to bypass copy-protection mechanisms. Comments are due by Dec. 18.

When enacting the DMCA in 1998, Congress ordered the Copyright Office to conduct regular reviews of one portion of the law. The Librarian of Congress, who oversees the Copyright Office, may exempt specific groups from being covered by part of the DMCA.

In October 2000, two exemptions were set: Filtering researchers could study blacklisting techniques, and obsolete copy-protection schemes could be legally bypassed. Those exemptions expire in October 2003.

But the DMCA includes two broad prohibitions--on bypassing copy-protection technology and on distributing a program that bypasses that technology--and the Librarian of Congress is permitted only to offer exemptions to the former.

Because it won't affect researchers or companies that publish software code that circumvents copy-protection technology, the practical impact of the new rulemaking is limited. It could not have helped 2600 magazine, for instance, which the movie studios successfully sued for distributing a DVD-descrambling utility.

Ben Edelman, a filtering-software researcher at Harvard University's Berkman Center, sued in July to overturn the second section of the DMCA. Companies that make filtering software typically include an encrypted list of sexually explicit or otherwise banned Web sites, and a researcher who distributes code that circumvents that copy protection could run afoul of the DMCA, Edelman asserted.

When reviewing the DMCA, the Librarian of Congress is required to consider the impact that the anticircumvention sections have "on criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research (and) the effect of circumvention of technological measures on the market for or value of copyrighted works."

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