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House clears copyright act

Months after the Senate's vote, the House OKs a bill safeguarding copyrights for music, software, and written works online.

4 min read
In a landmark move, the House passed legislation today to safeguard copyrights for music, software, and written works on the Internet and to outlaw technologies that can crack devices protecting this property.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act was approved by a House voice vote today. The act was passed by the Senate in May.

Both chambers will have to reach a compromise to iron out the differences in the bills before the legislation is sent to President Clinton for his signature.

The bill implements treaties signed at the World Intellectual Property Organization's Geneva conference on digital information and copyrights in December 1996.

"With the growth of electronic commerce having such a profound impact on the economy, the [House] Commerce Committee has engaged in a wide-ranging review of the subject," Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Virginia) said today on the House floor.

"This bill strikes an appropriate balance between the goal of promoting electronic commerce and the interests of copyright owners," he added.

The Net offers new, less expensive ways to sell and distribute products, transactions at the core of the growing e-commerce businesses of the software, movie, and music industries. Lobbyists and proponents of the bill argued that it's now easier to share and sell unauthorized copies of songs, computer applications, or books, and that protections must be expanded online for copyrighted information and products.

"Many countries around the world have not updated their laws to protect creative works online and have been looking to the United States for leadership," Robert Holleyman, president of the Business Software Alliance, said in a statement. "We praise Congress for providing that leadership today."

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

However, a controversial provision that was not included in the WIPO treaties makes it a crime in the United States to create or sell any technology that could be used to break copyright protection devices, such as encryption or digital watermarks. Violators could be charged up to $2,500 per act of circumvention.

The House bill approved today permits cracking copyright protection devices to conduct encryption research, but the Senate version doesn't allow this activity. Critics say even with exemptions, the provision could still hinder college students and programmers from decoding encryption algorithms to test the strength of the data protection technology.

"[The bill] fails to further recognize that encryption research is simply one aspect of security research, and that research is different from actual practice. While [the copyright act] may exempt encryption research, it still criminalizes other crucial techniques used in security research and practice," Purdue University computer science professor Eugene Spafford stated in a letter to Congress members last Friday, which was signed by 50 of the nation's top security researchers.

Copyright protection technologies also may be bypassed for the purpose of product interoperability and to let people gain access to personally identifiable information that a database company has collected about them.

Libraries and educators argued that this "black box provision" would let intellectual property owners build a "digital fence" around material researchers can access under fair-use stipulations in existing copyright law. The House version of the bill requires the Commerce Department secretary to conduct a study to determine whether fair-use access to copyrighted materials would be stifled by technological barriers. The study would cover the first two years the law would be in effect.

The treaties were adopted by 157 delegates at the WIPO's 1996 diplomatic conference. At that time, delegates removed language from the treaties that would have made Internet service providers and telephone carriers liable for copyright infringements that occur over their services.

Also rejected by WIPO members was the so-called sui generis database treaty, which would have allowed groups such as the NBA and Lexis-Nexis to copyright information in their databases.

Still, U.S. lawmakers took their own action to help protect electronic data repositories' cash cows. In May, the House passed Rep. Howard Coble's (R-North Carolina) 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 business.

Furthermore, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act protects databases as well, with some exceptions.

"In that portion of the bill, we have added a provision to preserve the Securities and Exchange Commission's authority to ensure that the public has full access to stock quotes," Rep. Bliley added. "This is critical because some experts have described [this] as being 'as necessary as oxygen' to investors. Thus, the commission may, in the future, takes steps to improve public access to all market data, including both delayed and real-time data."

Still, some contend new digital copyright legislation is unnecessary.

A two-year study for the U.S. Copyright Office released this month concludes that, historically, intellectual property owners are too vigilant in trying to protect their works when new technologies emerge, and that laws are not the answer.

The author of the report, Trotter Hardy, said the U.S. Copyright Act was revised in 1976 to be essentially technology-neutral, leaving it up to the court system to interpret the law.