Digital copyright bill becomes law

President Clinton signs the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which sets new rules for downloading, sharing, or simply viewing copyrighted material online.

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President Clinton today signed a bill that sets new rules for downloading, sharing, or simply viewing copyrighted material online.

Congress passed the bill, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, earlier this month. It imposes new safeguards for software, music, and written works on the Net, and outlaws technologies that can crack copyright protection devices.

In 18 months, it will be a crime to create or sell any technology that could be used to break copyright protection devices. Two years from now, it also will be a crime to commit acts of circumvention. Violators could be charged up to $2,500 per act of circumvention.

The copyright legislation was introduced shortly after treaties signed at the World Intellectual Property Organization's Geneva conference on digital information and copyrights in December 1996.

The Senate still must ratify the international agreements before they can be recognized by other governments.

Academics, computer researchers, and librarians had lobbied for changes in the bill because they said it would let companies build a digital tollgate around their content, hindering current "fair use" rights that let citizens and educators copy and share material with certain limitations.

The law does permit cracking copyright protection devices in order to conduct encryption research, for the purpose of product interoperability, and to test computer security systems.

The librarian of Congress will set the rules for exactly who gets the exemptions, and will work over the next few years with the Commerce Department to study whether the new technological barriers stifle fair-use access to copyrighted materials.

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