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Congress confronts copyrights

When two treaties were adopted last year to expand copyright protection on the Net, 157 world delegates struggled to compromise. Now Congress is attempting to do the same.

When two international treaties were adopted last year to expand copyright protection on the Internet, 157 world delegates struggled to compromise.

Now Congress is attempting to do the same at home, with Hollywood, software makers, and librarians pushing different tactics to shelter their works and define "fair-use" rights in cyberspace. Net service providers also jumped into the fray to push separate legislation that exempts them from liability for customers' acts of piracy.

Today, the House Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property held the first of two days of hearings on Rep. Howard Coble's (R-North Carolina) and Sen. Orrin Hatch's (R-Utah) ratification legislation, the WIPO Copyright and Performances and Phonograms Treaty Implementation Act.

Pushed by the White House, the bill would adopt treaties signed by the United States at the World Intellectual Property Organization's diplomatic conference in Geneva, Switzerland, last December, which state that it's an international crime to reproduce or distribute digital literature, artistic works, or music without permission.

The Coble-Hatch bill also will amend existing U.S. copyright law--and that's where the debate heats up.

For example, the film industry wants the treaties ratified now "as is," or in their current form. So does the Information Industry Association, which represents more than 500 companies worldwide.

"If you can't protect what you own, you don't own anything," said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, in testimony submitted to the committee. "The very same technology that eases the legitimate distribution of our creative products around the world also entices copyright piracy."

Chances are the WIPO treaties won't be ratified quickly enough to suit movie and record producers, in part because of mounting opposition to a provision that makes it a crime to import, manufacture, or distribute technology that can "circumvent" copyright protection devices.

The Digital Future Coalition (DFC) is against the condition, endorsing a competing piece of legislation written by Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Missouri) instead. Ashcroft's bill makes it a crime for a person--not technology--to circumvent anticopying devices.

"This [Coble] provision creates a new crime that doesn't exist under current law," Adam Eisgrau, of the DFC and the American Library Association told CNET's NEWS.COM. He said in many cases a user would not even know that they were "breaking" copyright protection laws and that PCs alone could be considered "illegal" devices.

When questioned by the Coble and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) today, a White House representative acknowledged that Congress does not have to pass the Coble-Hatch "anticircumvention" condition in order to comply with the WIPO treaties. Still, the Clinton administration supports the "black box," according to testimony by Bruce Lehman, assistant secretary of Commerce and commissioner of the U.S. Patent and Trademark office.

"The intended to protect the rights of copyright owners while encouraging the continued advancement of technology in a balanced manner that takes into account the needs and concerns of all interested parties and the importance of promoting the continuing growth of electronic commerce," Lehman said.

The administration wasn't as firm on the issue of online services and ISPs being held accountable for copyright infringements made on their networks by customers. Lehman passed the torch to Congress instead.

Another bill by Coble--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. The Software Publishers Association, of which Microsoft is a member, supports the WIPO implementation bill but is strongly opposed to letting ISPs off the hook for other's acts of piracy.

"Overall, the industry loses $12 billion per year to piracy," testified Ken Wasch, SPA's president. "Because HR 2180 would exempt direct infringers as well as indirect infringers, it would require software companies to prove not only infringement but active wrongdoing to fight software piracy on the Internet--a higher burden than that needed to fight software piracy on the street."

But ISPs, telcos, and other high-tech trade groups say carriers would have to police customers' activity in order to escape liability under the current law.

"Only the content owner or his agent can ever know for sure what is an authorized use. Our proposal is that they do this and then contact us so we may assist them in fighting piracy by taking the offending material down," said Roy Neel, CEO of the United States Telephone Association.