Wearing his trademark black suit, country singer Johnny Cash was supposed to tell Congress today that his songs are in desperate need of copyright protection in cyberspace.
But instead of sticking to a statement prepared by the recording industry, the star witness ad-libbed his testimony, which was intended to voice support for a bill that would implement international treaties aimed at revising copyright laws.
Cash surprised the audience when he departed from his prepared statement, released by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), complicating the simple message he was supposed to deliver. The RIAA statement had Cash saying his hit song, "Ring of Fire," could be downloaded from a Web site in the Balkan nation of Slovenia, something the country artist labeled "downright theft."
What Cash actually said was that he had sold most foreign rights to his songs long ago. "Of course, we sold the copyrights in most foreign countries," he told the committee. "But it's an example of the abuse that is out there, that they were selling it over the Internet." Returning to his prepared testimony, he said a few seconds later: "This exactly is the problem the [global] treaties are designed to address."
The singer was one of dozens who testified at two days of House hearings on Rep. Howard Coble's (R-North Carolina) and Sen. Orrin Hatch's (R-Utah) bill to ratify treaties signed by the United States at the World Intellectual Property Organization's diplomatic conference in Geneva, Switzerland, last December.
The software industry came through with accounts of hard-core piracy. Tom Ryan, CEO of SciTech Software, testified on behalf of the Software Publishers Association. "SciTech has been battling software piracy all along, but last spring, the problem got worse. My company received threats from an extortionist," his testimony stated.
"Unless we paid him $20,000, he would broadcast on the Internet the instructions to disable the timer mechanism for SciTech Display Doctor," Ryan added. "This would enable those who downloaded the trial version of our software to keep using it indefinitely without paying."
Others who testified before the House Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property countered the pleas for speedy passage of the WIPO implementation bills, which also would have to be ratified by the Senate.
For example, representatives of schools and libraries say the bill--HR 2281--needs to be rewritten to ensure "fair-use" rights so they can access and distribute certain online materials.
Earlham College president Douglas Bennett, who spoke on behalf of the Digital Future Coalition, called the proposal "gravely flawed." He said it would threaten privacy rights by preventing customers from disabling industry snooping devices designed to track their online activities.
The DFC also wants to eliminate a provision that would make it a crime to import, manufacture, or distribute technology that can "circumvent" copyright protection devices. A member of Congress also spoke up in opposition to the condition.
"The adoption of a punishment for the manufacture of devices such as general-purpose computers and recorders" is not needed to carry out the treaties, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Virginia) told the committee.
Boucher added the treaty makers specifically "rejected language that would have required punishment of the manufacture of devices." He said the administration had resurrected the proposal to ban equipment and put it "at the core of the legislation."
The technology industry argued that the bill's provision would stifle innovation.
The Information Technology Industry Council supports passage of the bill but is worried about the "anticircumvention device" section.
"We are concerned that, as it is currently drafted, [the section] will complicate the information technology industry's ability to continue to innovate and produce the products and services that make the information infrastructure possible," said Chris Byrne, director of intellectual property for Silicon Graphics, in his testimony submitted on behalf of the ITT.
"HR 2281, as drafted, upsets the constitutional balance between the promotion of innovation and protection of intellectual property by favoring protection at the expense of innovation," he added.
Another bill by Coble was also discussed during the hearings. The Online Copyright Limitation Liability Act, or HR 2180, will exempt service providers and telephone companies from liability if they don't know about the illegal activity on their networks.
Groups like the SPA are against HR 2180 because they say it will weaken the consequences for online piracy. But Internet service providers and telephone companies are pushing for its passage. They say to escape liability under the current law, they would have to police customers' activity.
Reuters contributed to this report.