Copyright treaty draws tech industry criticism

Unlikely coalition takes aim at a controversial United Nations treaty that would expand copyright law on the Internet.

Anne Broache
Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
3 min read
ALEXANDRIA, Va.--An online culture built around user-generated content on Web sites like YouTube and MySpace would be imperiled by a new treaty, public interest groups and some technology companies said Tuesday.

At issue is a treaty called "Protection of the Rights of Broadcasting Organizations," which proponents say is necessary to ensure that TV and cable broadcasters--and now, their Web-based counterparts--have the tools to combat unauthorized retransmission of their signals. The World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO, a specialized arm of the United Nations, gave the go-ahead in 2003 to begin drafting the treaty, but a final version is still pending.

Opponents say the treaty would go far beyond targeting so-called "signal piracy." They warn that it would give broadcasters and Webcasters exclusive, 50-year rights to authorize rebroadcasting of their signals, would create additional legal hoops for the average Internet user to jump through, and could shrink existing protections in U.S. law for public domain works and other instances of fair use.

With the latest draft of the document (click for PDF) scheduled for consideration at a meeting in Geneva next week, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office hosted a roundtable discussion here in Alexandria, Va., to allow for public comment.

A loose coalition of 35 companies and organizations, which are often at odds with each other on other topics, joined together to sign a statement of opposition (click for PDF), which was distributed at the two-hour event. The signatories included Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, AT&T, Verizon Communications, Sony and TiVo, as well as the American Library Association, the Broadband Service Providers Association, the Home Recording Rights Coalition and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Although their individual positions varied, the document's signers generally argued that the broadcast and Webcast lobby--backed by Yahoo and other members of the Digital Media Association--have not made a strong enough case for the new treaty. If theft of signals is truly the primary worry, they said, then existing U.S. laws likely offer sufficient protections, or a more narrowly tailored proposal could be drafted.

But as it stands, the proposal would trample on the legal rights consumers currently enjoy, such as recording TV broadcasts for later viewing and playing them back within their homes, some opponents argued.

The proposal also embraces the legality of technological protection measures, which means there would be nothing to stop controversial copy-prevention regimes like the broadcast flag, designed to prevent digital TV piracy, from being implemented, said Electronic Frontier Foundation International Affairs Director Gwen Hinze. Such mandates "increase design costs, which are passed on to consumers, and reduce the feature set available to consumers," Hinze said.

The proposal "would enable 'casters to gain very unprecedented control in the home and personal network environment, which would interfere with the rollout of broadband and home networking services (and) new and innovative devices that allow users to use content in new and flexible ways," said Michael Petricone, senior vice president for government affairs for the Consumer Electronics Association.

Seth Greenstein, a partner at the Washington D.C. law office of Constantine Cannon who serves as outside counsel to the Digital Media Association, said that's not the intention of treaty supporters.

"What we have always intended to be the scope of coverage is Internet Webcasting that is like broadcasting, not individual files, songs, audio or video clips made on individual Web sites, but rather programming that is scheduled," Greenstein said.

He said he believed that the latest U.S.-offered definition of Netcasting (click for PDF) satisfies that aim.

Jule Sigall, the U.S. Copyright Office official who led the roundtable, said the most recent language, released earlier this summer, is "very much a step towards something else" and that next week's meetings of WIPO's Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights will present "a very fluid situation" in which much could change.