Copyright bill charging ahead

The House Commerce Committee approves the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which aims to better protect music, software, and literature on the Net.

The House Commerce Committee today approved the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to shield copyrights for digital works and to outlaw technologies that can crack copyright-protection devices.

The bill, which was passed by the Senate in May, will implement treaties signed at the World Intellectual Property Organization's1996 summit to better protect copyrighted music, software, and literature on the Net.

The legislation also will establish a handful of safe harbors that limit Net access providers' liability for copyright infringements made by their customers.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich has promised that Republicans would support passage of the legislation.

A controversial condition in the bill makes it a crime to create or sell any technology that could be used to break copyright protection devices, such as encryption or digital watermarks. Violators could be charged up to $2,500 per act of circumvention.

But the House passed several amendments today that lay out exemptions for cracking copyright protection devices to conduct encryption research and to let people gain access to personally identifiable information that a database company has collected about them.

In addition, the House bill requires the Secretary of Commerce to conduct a study for the first two years the law would be in effect to determine whether "fair use" access to copyrighted materials is stifled by technological barriers.

Libraries and educators charge that the so-called black box provision could let intellectual property owners build a "digital fence" around material they are entitled to access under the fair use stipulation in the existing copyright law.

The legislation was passed out of both houses with some narrow exemptions for nonprofit companies, libraries, archives, schools, and technology makers. For example, for the purpose of interoperability, technology may be developed to bypass copyright protections.

But unlike the House bill, the Senate version does not make an exception for encryption. Critics say the provision could be used to hinder college students and programmers from cracking encryption algorithms to test the strength of the data protection technology.

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