Buying Microsoft Office or the latest Rolling Stones album can cost a pretty penny in the physical world. But as Congress heard this week, the Net makes it all too easy to get copies of the same copyrighted material for free.
During a hearing yesterday, the recording and software industries asked the Senate Judiciary Committee to ratify two international treaties that would protect their copyrights in cyberspace. Online services and Net access providers, such as America Online, were also in Washington to support separate legislation that would exempt them from liability for any copyright infringements by their millions of customers.
Rep. Howard Coble (R-North Carolina) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced the WIPO Copyright and Performances and Phonograms Treaty Implementation Act, which would adopt treaties signed by the United States at the World Intellectual Property Organization's diplomatic conference in Geneva, Switzerland, last December. The treaties state that it's an international crime to reproduce or distribute digital literature, artistic works, or music without permission.
"The Internet holds great promise for electronic commerce for music and other forms of entertainment," Cary Sherman, general counsel for the Recording Industry Association of America, told the committee.
"Unfortunately, the rapid growth of the Internet also means that the peril faced by our industry is of the same magnitude," he added. "Our sound recordings are easily copied to a computer hard drive."
In addition, the Coble-Hatch bill makes it a crime to import, manufacture, or distribute technology that defeats copyright-protection devices. Some observers opposed the treaty provision during the WIPO negotiations because they said the "broad" condition could incriminate engineers who test such products by cracking them, or make PCs illegal because they could be used on many levels to break such devices.
Online services and ISPs also want Congress to pass another bill introduced by Coble that exempts them from liability for copyright violations on their networks if they don't know about the illegal activity. Under the Online Copyright Limitation Liability Act, services can also skirt responsibility for linking to pirated material unless it's proven in court that the links were actual endorsements of the illegal material.
"Congress must make clear that service providers that act simply as a conduit for transmitting information are immune for third-party infringement," AOL's general counsel George Vradenburg testified.
Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Missouri) also introduced similar legislation this week. But his Digital Copyright and Technology Act refutes the Coble-Hatch bill's provision that criminalizes copyright protection defeating devices. Instead, Ashcroft's legislation "makes it illegal to circumvent anticopying technology if the circumvention occurs in the course of an independent copyright violation." In other words, his bill does not outlaw technology, but "targets illegal conduct."
The move to shield online services from responsibility for their customers activity is also facing opposition. "Novell and our industry colleagues believe that the copyright law should not be changed to create general immunities for online service providers," said Daniel Burton, vice president for government relations at Novell, who testified on behalf of Business Software Alliance and the Software Publishers Association.
"Given the rapidly changing nature of electronic commerce and our inability to predict with certainty how business will evolve, it's imperative that we proceed with caution before modifying existing copyright law," he added.
The groups Burton represented also support the Coble-Hatch provision that outlaws distributing technology that could be used to crack copyright protection devices.
Reuters contributed to this report.