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Congress mulls revisions to DMCA

Legislators take a step toward revising the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which has attracted extensive criticism over the past six years.

Congress has taken a step toward revising the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which has attracted extensive criticism over the past six years.

A House of Representatives subcommittee convened Wednesday for the first hearing devoted to a proposal to defang the DMCA, a 1998 law that broadly restricts bypassing copy-protection technologies used in DVDs, a few music CDs and some software programs.

Called the Digital Media Consumers' Rights Act, the amendments are backed by librarians, liberal consumer groups and some technology firms. But they're bitterly opposed by the entertainment industry, including Hollywood, major record labels and the Business Software Alliance.

"It legalizes hacking," Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, said of the proposed changes. "It allows you to make a copy or many copies. And the 1000th copy of a DVD, Mr. Chairman, is as pure and pristine as the original. You strip away all the protective clothing of that DVD and leave it naked and alone."

Section 1201 of the DMCA drew fire after it was used to outlaw a utility permitting Linux users to watch their own DVDs, as well as threaten security researchers with lawsuits. Programmer Dmitry Skylarov was charged under the DMCA for writing a program that let owners of Adobe e-books export them to Portable Document Format (PDF) files.

The proposed amendments, sponsored by Rick Boucher, D-Va, and John Doolittle, R-Calif., would permit circumvention for "fair use" purposes. Selling pirated DVDs and other forms of copyright infringement would remain illegal.

"Without a change in the existing law, individuals will be less willing to purchase digital media if their use of the media within the home is severely circumscribed," Boucher said. "In addition, manufacturers of equipment and software which enable circumvention for legitimate purposes will be reluctant to introduce the products into the market."

It's unclear what the prospects are for the Boucher-Doolittle bill. It has a mere 15 co-sponsors in the House and no Senate version exists. What's more, the consumer protection subcommittee that convened Wednesday's hearing does not have jurisdiction over copyright law, making it unlikely the bill will be forwarded to the House floor this year.

Even some members of the subcommittee took a dim view of the proposal. "Theft is theft and property is property," said Rep. Butch Otter, R-Idaho.