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New consumer-protection bill introduced

Lawmakers unveil a long-promised bill that would outline how consumers can use electronic media, books and software in the digital age without running afoul of copyright laws.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., has finally introduced a long-promised bill that would outline how consumers can use electronic media, books and software in the digital age without running afoul of ever-stricter copyright laws.

The Digital Choice and Freedom Act of 2002, unveiled Wednesday, would provide protections for consumers who give away or make backup copies of digital material they've purchased. The bill would also amend the divisive Digital Millennium Copyright Act so that consumers could bypass technical protections on copyrighted material if they plan to use the work legally. And it would place restrictions on shrink-wrap licenses.

"Consumers need a voice in this debate," Lofgren said in a statement. "Right now, it is the entertainment industry versus the technology industry, and the consumers are watching from the sidelines."

Lofgren's efforts are designed to force a debate over copyrights in the digital age. In an effort to thwart piracy, the entertainment industries have been slowly chipping away at consumer rights by refusing to let people use digital content in the same way they've used analog material. Through lawsuits and lobbying, Hollywood has succeeded in limiting people's ability to perform tasks such as sharing or making backup copies of their work without breaking the law.

Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., is scheduled to unveil another consumer-protection bill Thursday.

The efforts are responses to Hollywood-backed bills introduced earlier this year, including one that would require anti-copying technology in new devices and another that could allow copyright holders to hack consumers' machines in a search for illegal material.

It's unlikely the new consumer bills will gain much traction in the near future, partly because they come at the end of the session. Many congressmen spend the final days of the session introducing bills that cover issues important to the lawmakers and their constituents, even if they aren't likely to get a hearing. The lawmakers are essentially planting a stake in the ground with plans to resurrect the issue next year.

Lofgren's bill was met with enthusiastic support by many consumer and free-speech advocates, many of whom have been looking for official endorsement of their cause. Representatives from some entertainment industry trade groups did not immediately respond to requests for comments on the bill.