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Antipiracy laws under fire

At the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference, critics of antipiracy laws say the rules are hedging society toward "information feudalism."

AUSTIN, Texas--Although the Net often is called a great equalizer, legal and technology experts warned today that proposed antipiracy laws coupled with the trend toward pay-per-view online content is hedging society to "information feudalism."

Surfers shouldn't be forced to research public materials with "the meter running," speakers told the American Committee for Interoperable Systems (ACIS) here today at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference, where 400 attendees have gathered to discuss high-tech regulation and online privacy issues.

ACIS members met this morning to discuss legislation in Europe and the United States aimed at tightening copyright owners' grip on their property in the digital domain. Based on treaties signed at the World Intellectual Property Organization's diplomatic conference in Geneva, Switzerland, in December 1996, Congress and the European Union drafted bills late last year to strengthen international copyright laws to include online material.

The online copyright debate hinges on how to balance the public's right to access valuable information via the Net and the needs of intellectual property owners who say computer networks make it easier to copy and redistribute software, music, film, and literature illegally.

"There are a lot of people with the dream of selling copyrighted material over the network...that can never be copied or printed or passed around," Whitfield Diffie, Sun Microsystems' Distinguished Engineer and coauthor of the book Privacy on the Line told ACIS members today. "What concerns me is 'information feudalism'--certain people will own the information and everybody will have to rent it day by day."

ACIS is made up of more than 30 corporations, including: Advanced Micro Devices, Amdahl Corporation, AT&T Global Information Solutions, 3Com Corporation, Storage Technology Corporation, and Sun. The group says it supports intellectual property policies that reward innovation but promote the interoperability of computer systems.

Critics of the U.S. and E.U. proposals say the bills favor the rich and well-organized publishing, recording, and software industries; fail to clearly define fair-use rights; and create new copyright crimes. The E.U. also has extended the life of copyrights from 50 years to 70 years.

For example, the plans make it illegal to create or sell a device that could circumvent so-called black box technologies that are designed to protect copyrighted material. The copyright-cracking device provisions are under fire by ACIS because they could outlaw a computer, for example. The House Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property plans to mark up the bill February 26.

ACIS member companies were urged to pump up support for a different bill that focuses on criminalizing the act of circumvention, not the tools that make it possible.

The nature of the Net makes it almost impossible for nations to govern the medium, especially because there are few consistent policies. But one ACIS adviser cautioned that if more nations follow the dominant example of the United States and Europe, their drafted copyright laws could become international standards. Derailing these efforts will be difficult, Julie Cohen, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, said today.

"What seems to be happening is that intellectual property owners will push for more protection in every forum," she said. "It's like a big jelly fish. Once you grab one arm in this country, the other arms are still out there flailing."

Also of concern for some ACIS members is the Collections of Information Antipiracy Act.

If passed by Congress, it would be illegal to extract information from electronic databases and make it available elsewhere if such an act would "harm" the database company's current or potential market. Although these databases organize and aggregate what often is public information, violators could be fined up to $250,000 or imprisoned for a maximum of five years. During the WIPO conference, a similar proposal pushed by the United States was rejected. (See related story)

In addition, the Digital Era Copyright Enhancement Act gives exemptions to libraries and distance-learning institutions regarding fair use and fair sale, so that downloading or sharing copies of protected online material that was purchased legally by someone else is not a crime for these entities.