Politicos call for music copyright reform

They want a "technology neutral" system that would streamline royalty payouts, expand inventories of legal downloading services.

WASHINGTON--Legal music-download services won't be able to compete fully with their free- and illegal-download counterparts until copyright law changes, a Virginia congressman said Tuesday.

"The illegal services offer all of the songs, and the legal services don't, and therein lies the crux of the problem," Rep. Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat, said in a speech at the Future of Music Policy Summit here.

The remedy, he said, lies in a congressional rewrite of portions of copyright law that govern licensing and royalty fees and make it cumbersome for legal download services to add material to their inventories. Boucher said he hopes his committee will have a new bill written and reported to the U.S. House of Representatives by the end of this congressional term in November. (The congressman has also been a vocal critic of other pieces of digital copyright law.)

The Senate Judiciary Committee has also been exploring how to streamline and simplify the royalty system in a way that "balances the competing interests of artists and publishers" but "doesn't continue to lead to legal challenges," Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., told summit attendees in a noon speech.

Any changes to copyright law must be "technology neutral," she emphasized. "The government needs to have a light touch," she said, so as "not to unintentionally slow down the process of innovation."

Both politicians voiced concerns about Section 115 of federal copyright statute, which pertains to the complex system of "mechanical royalties" paid to record companies, recording artists, songwriters and publishers based on sales of the song recordings.

Created in 1909 in response to a court decision exempting player piano music rolls from copyright regulations, the system involves "a cumbersome, paper-based, song-by-song process" that needs modernization, Boucher said. He suggested that the Copyright Office switch all its records to an electronic database.

The law also needs to clarify that buffer, cache and otherwise ephemeral digital copies of music don't qualify for royalty payouts, Boucher said. Technically, under current law, a person who unwittingly uses those files could face "potentially ruinous damages," he said.

Boucher also noted problems with Section 114, which concerns sound recording licenses for radio and rebroadcast outlets. As it stands, the rates aren't distributed evenly among various media. Most broadcast radio stations, for example, owe no fees under the law, but Webcasters have to pay up. The system "must be harmonized," Boucher said.

But Congress can't go forward until it achieves consensus among the powerful interest groups involved, Boucher said: "If you belong to an organization that represents copyright owners, please urge a resolution of these issues at the earliest possible time."

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