Congress pushes copyright bills

The House Judiciary Committee passes legislation that would impose stricter penalties on those who violate copyrights using the Net.

3 min read
Congress has been advancing copyright legislation of late to add protections for the digital age.

The House Judiciary Committee today passed Rep. Howard Coble's (R-North Carolina) and Sen. Orrin Hatch's (R-Utah) legislation to ratify international treaties that extend intellectual property rights to digital works.

In addition, the committee merged the Congress shapes high-tech, Net policy bill with Coble's Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act. The provision limits Net access providers' accountability for copyright infringements made over their networks, unless they have knowledge of such activity or gain economically from it.

The bill now goes for a full House vote.

Today's action comes on the heels of another move to strengthen copyrights. Last week, the House Judiciary Committee also unanimously approved the Collections of Information Antipiracy Act, which would make it illegal to extract information from a database and make it available elsewhere, if such an act would "harm" the database company's current or potential market. Violators could be fined up to $250,000 or imprisoned for a maximum of five years.

Some argue that the database bill will give current and future database owners indefinite control over the information they harness.

Despite the committee's action today, some high-tech companies and civil liberties groups oppose the Coble-Hatch bill because it would place criminal status on acts such as reverse engineering or product development.

The legislation makes it illegal to create or sell any device that could be used to crack technologies that safeguard copyrighted material. Foes of the bill say engineers and high-tech companies regularly crack such technologies during research processes, much in the same way auto makers test-crash cars. The bill makes no exceptions.

"They are viewing circumvention as a crime regardless of if there were any copyrights violated," said Lowell Sachs, the government affairs representative for Sun Microsystems, who also sits on the American Committee for Interoperable Systems (ACIS).

"There are a host of reasons why people may want to circumvent a copyright protection device during engineering or development," he added. "The net effect of the bill will be to stifle tech innovation, hinder the development and growth of the Net, and hinder competition in the computer industry."

The 1,200-member Software Publishers Association argues that the disputed clause would only outlaw technologies "that have no meaningful purpose other than such circumvention." The real threat to the industry, the SPA said, is the illegal copying and online distribution of products.

Although the committee approved some limitations on service provider liability today, negotiations are still under way to create more safe harbors for ISPs in return for their support of the Coble-Hatch bill.

Last night, lawmakers worked with the ISP industry to create four safe harbors that are expected to be embraced by the Coble-Hatch bill or to be introduced in the form of new legislation.

For the most part, ISPs would escape liability under the proposal when they are simply passing data over the Net automatically; caching temporary copies of online material; when a customer stores an infringing copy on the service provider's system; or if the provider links to a site that contains infringements.

"We have negotiated in the expectation that ISPs will support [the Coble-Hatch bill] and its Senate companion, S.1121," said Mark Traphagen, SPA vice president and counsel for intellectual property and trade policy.

"These negotiations represent the software industry's good-faith effort to accommodate the concerns of the telecommunications industry," he added.