House clears copyright bill

Legislation to impose new safeguards for software, music, and written works on the Net is finally on its way to the president.

3 min read
The House today passed legislation to impose new safeguards for software, music, and written works on the Net, and to outlaw technologies that can crack copyright protection devices.

The Senate cleared the bill on Wednesday, and President Clinton is now expected to sign it into law.

Once the Digital Millennium Copyright Act becomes law, it will be a crime to create or sell any technology that could be used to break copyright protection devices or to commit an act of circumvention. The provisions will take effect 18 months and two years after the bill is signed, respectively. 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. Technically, the Senate still has to ratify the international agreements, but it will likely wait to do so until after U.S. law is in compliance with the treaties.

However, because the U.S. bills go much farther than the treaties, passage has been hard won. The powerful movie, music, and software industries argue that the Net--and other computer networks--make it easier for people to illegally copy and distribute their products. That, in turn, stifles their desire to broaden e-commerce investments, companies say.

These industries are primed to win stronger digital copyright protections around the globe as Congress's action will likely be mimicked when other nations ratify the treaties signed in 1996.

"We are urging the president to sign this bill promptly because right now there are thousands of software pirate sites, bootleg serial number sites, and sites with piracy tools, and this bill gives us a certain remedy against all those people," said Mark Traphagen, vice president of the Software Publishers Association.

"We want the Senate to then ratify the treaties before it adjourns," he added. "That will have international significance because there is a whole world that is waiting for U.S. leadership on ratifying the WIPO treaties and making sure their laws measure up to the treaties."

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

"Libraries agree this was about balancing the interest between copyright proprietors in having their material protected and the larger public interest in having continued access to information in the digital age," Adam Eisgrau, legislative counsel to the American Library Association, said today.

Although concessions were made to address fair use concerns, the bill still favors intellectual property owners and their right to protect their capital.

For example, a provision was included to require Webcasters--such as the budding group of Net radio stations--to pay licensing fees to record companies, which could take a large chunk out of their gross revenues. The provision was created jointly by the Recording Industry Association of America, the Digital Media Association, and members of Congress.

The research community and general public did win some battles. As reported, a joint-house conference committee scrapped a section that would have given database owners broad powers to prevent others from using their valuable public data collections to launch competing businesses.

Still, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is taking the lead to bring up the database bill as separate legislation next year.

Moreover, the bill has exceptions to the so-called black box provision. The legislation passed by Congress today does permit cracking copyright protection devices 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 who exactly gets the exemptions and will work with the Commerce Department to study whether these technological barriers stifle fair-use access to copyrighted materials after the bill is passed.

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