Politicos wary of changes to copyright law

Fearing piracy, they're reluctant to rewrite laws so people can, for legal purposes, bypass copy protection on goods like CDs.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
3 min read
WASHINGTON--Politicians on Wednesday voiced reluctance to rewrite laws and allow people to bypass, in the name of fair use, copy-protection mechanisms on goods such as CDs and software.

The statements came at a hearing here convened by a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee that deals with commerce, trade and consumer protection.

A provision of standard copyright law known as fair use allows for permission-free reproduction of certain copyright works, provided it's for certain noncommercial purposes, such as teaching, news reporting, criticism and research.

But fair use gets no mention in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, a law that broadly prohibits cracking copy-protection technology found in products such as DVDs, computer software and electronic books. Critics say that omission eats away at consumers' rights to use the works in ways standard fair use rights would otherwise permit. The law's supporters, including the entertainment industry, counter that any changes would lead to rampant piracy.

Some members of Congress have been trying for years to pass legislation that would build fair use into the DMCA. That's one of the major goals of their latest effort, called the Digital Media Consumers' Rights Act. The measure was reintroduced in March by Rep. Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat, and backed by Rep. Joe Barton, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"It boils down to this: I believe that when I buy a music album or movie DVD, it should be mine once I leave the store," Barton said at the hearing, which featured a panel of eight representatives from a range of industries.

The majority of those panelists--including the digital rights organization Public Knowledge, the Consumer Electronics Association, and the Library Copyright Alliance--urged Congress to adopt the latest proposal. They've said passage of the consumers' rights act is even more important with new copy-protection proposals for digital television and radio--the so-called "broadcast flag" and "analog hole"--in the pipeline, though those ideas have received mixed reviews in Congress.

"Fair use is not piracy," said Peter Jaszi, an American University copyright law professor, who said the current phrasing of the DMCA "cries out for legislative redress." Standard copyright law "does not just accept fair use but actively encourages it."

But panelists encountered reservations--and outright opposition--from several members of the House subcommittee, including Chairman Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican, who said he thought the solution should lie in technology, "not necessarily in legislation."

Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumers Electronics Association, said the companies he represents could probably build products with technology that could effectively limit the number of copies made while allowing for fair uses. But he admitted it's hard to prevent hacking. "If you build a smarter mousetrap," he said, "you do get smarter mice."

Stearns and others said they were concerned that any law allowing circumvention of copy-protection devices would undercut the purpose of the DMCA and could be exploited by criminals looking to pirate works.

"I hope we can slow down the movement of (the consumer) bill or stop it entirely," said Rep. Mary Bono, a California Republican who described herself as a "staunch opponent" of the bill.

Barton and Boucher said they disagreed: The same penalties would continue to apply to pirates, they said.

Some politicians at the hearing suggested it would be better to wait and see if the market can resolve the tensions on its own. Stearns said that rather than rushing to legislate or struggling to figure out, for instance, how many copies a person could make before violating fair use principles, the industry should "work together to get a unified DRM (digital rights management) system that all consumers can understand."