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Napster battle shifts to Capitol Hill

Although members of Congress emphasize the need to examine the thorny issue of intellectual property on the Internet, some caution that action may not occur anytime soon.

    WASHINGTON--In the wake of a federal appeals court decision that puts Napster even further on the defensive, the next battleground over digital downloading and its related intellectual property debate could occur in Congress, with a possible rewrite of a copyright law only 2 years old.

    Last year, the highlight of the Napster debate in Congress came when conservative Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, explained to anti-Napster advocate and Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich that they were soulmates, as Hatch has recorded gospel albums. The debate will be more rigorous this year, however, as Congress no longer can count on the courts to protect copyrights while pleasing the millions of Americans who enjoy free downloads.

    At issue is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which detailed protections for content in the satellite and cable industries but left open to interpretation a great deal of intellectual property law regarding the Internet. This was partly intentional, but some members argued that the resulting ambiguity could lead to a rewrite. Others involved in authoring the act cautioned that change may not come quickly.

    "I would say that's not at all likely this year," said Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., co-chairman of the House Internet Caucus, referring to the movement of Napster-related legislation. Goodlatte and other members were attending an all-day conference on Capitol Hill sponsored Monday by Comdex and clearinghouse Web site, the same day a federal appeals court in San Francisco signaled that Napster must shortly police its service for copyright violations.

    Goodlatte may find resistance on that position from his fellow co-chairman, Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., who late last year introduced a bill that could make some controversial online music services legal, which he hoped would generate a debate on digital downloading this year.

    Sympathy for downloaders has limits
    Republican Billy Tauzin, the self-described "Rajun Cajun" from Louisiana who just took over as chairman of the House Commerce Committee, said he's seen up close what Napster can do. His sons are addicted, he said.

    "They tell me, 'Dad, don't you put that company out of business,'" he said Monday. But he has a direct response for them. "If every artist knows they'll sell one copy of their music" with copies then sent across the Internet, he says he asks his sons in return, "how many artists are going to continue to release their music?"

    Tauzin believes Congress has an important role to play in sorting out intellectual property and copyright law in a digital world. "Along with online privacy and security," he said, the most critical technology facing legislators "is protecting creativity...The question is, how do we cut that fine line between fair use and protection?'"

    Newly elected Sen. George Allen of Virginia, who has assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Republican High-Tech Task Force, said the Napster issue was a hot topic at last week's task force meeting. The consensus?

    "We need to make sure copyrights are protected," said Allen, adding that the issue goes beyond Napster to the larger issue of piracy domestically and abroad.

    But Goodlatte said that before any action can take place, "we're going to want to see how this Napster's day in court appellate decision actually works."

    "I think this decision will keep pressure on all of the parties to come together to find a way to do business together," he said, not just in music but in numerous intellectual property industries.

    Mitch Glazier, chief lobbyist for the Recording Industry Association of America, agreed.

    "Instead of the copyright holders dipping their big toes into the pool" to offer music online, he said, "they may jump in knowing they now have copyright protection...I think you'll see the acceleration of content being released regardless of legislation."

    Still, politicians ultimately answer to citizens, and the court decision Monday has left tens of millions of Napster members frustrated.

    "We'll be hearing from a huge number of Napster fans," Goodlatte acknowledged. But he said what he took away from the court decision is that "copyrighted material is valuable."