Copyright treaty changes urged

Internet access services ask Congress to absolve them of responsibility for illicit material sent over their networks.

A coalition of online services and Internet access providers is urging Congress to absolve them of responsibility for the transmission of potentially illegal material under two new international copyright treaties awaiting ratification.

The Ad Hoc Copyright Coalition wants legislators to pass legislation clarifying statements accompanying the treaties, which were negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations-sponsored World Intellectual Property Organization last December in Geneva. Although ISPs and online services argue that delegates never intended the agreements to punish ISPs for copyright violations, they say certain language could still be strictly interpreted to make them liable for illicit material sent over their networks, even if they are not aware of its existence.

The coalition also is urging Congress to revise language that could make the simple viewing of copyrighted material a violation unless permission is granted first. In other words, viewing a Web page without explicit approval from its owner could constitute copyright infringement.

"Ratification of the WIPO treaties must be accompanied by legislation that clarifies the status of temporary copies within communications networks and appropriately balances responsibilities with respect to such copies under U.S. law," the coalition said in a position paper sent to Capitol Hill yesterday.

Entertainment producers, software publishers, and other companies that create original content lobbied hard to get stricter provisions included in the treaties but had to settle for the watered-down provisions ISPs are now protesting. These media and technology firms argue that network operators should help police their systems to look for unusual traffic patterns that could signal piracy of proprietary material.

But the coalition argued that any legal liability for material on the Internet should rest with the individuals or companies that create it, not network or backbone operators responsible for the "mere provision of physical facilities for enabling or making a communication."

Among the group's members are America Online, CompuServe, AT&T, MCI Communications, Nynex, Pacific Telesis, and Netscape Communications.

Unless the treaties draw "fair boundaries of copyright liability," the coalition stated, "the growth and development of the Internet will be jeopardized by legal uncertainty and burdensome litigation."

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