February 19, 2003 4:44 PM PST

Compromise copyright bill in works

Opponents of Hollywood's drive to strengthen copyright law are mounting a new strategy: Require anything that has antipiracy technology built in to be clearly labeled and let consumers decide at the cash register.

Speaking at the Intel-sponsored Digital Rights Summit in Silicon Valley, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he was close to introducing a bill that would likely require consumer-electronics devices or media such as music CDs to be clearly labeled with explanations of any anticopying restrictions. Several other legislators are preparing, or have already introduced, bills that contain labeling provisions that apply to specific devices or media such as digital televisions or audio CDs.

The nascent focus on labeling already has won the backing of key companies such as Intel. Supporters hope that as consumers avoid the most restrictive technologies, the broader points about the undesirability of limiting digital media use will be made.

"I want people to walk into every store in America and see that the product they're about to buy has restrictions," Wyden said. "Let's take this to the marketplace."

The new strategy marks a potentially realistic middle ground between competing legislative visions for how to control or unfetter the chaotic world of digital media and distribution.

Previous legislative proposals, backed by some Hollywood studios, would have required all digital media players, ranging from DVD players to personal computers, to include built-in anticopying technology. Fear of that measure helped deepen suspicion between entertainment producers and Silicon Valley companies that continues to resonate today.

On the other side, legislators backed by consumer groups have introduced proposals to roll back some of the most restrictive provisions of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), protecting consumers' rights to "fair use" of digital media. Fair use is a legal defense that allows copies of works or elements of works to be used for research, educational and journalistic purposes, among others.

However, few political observers believe that any ambitious copyright proposals by either side will be successful in a Congress distracted by war and more pressing economic issues this year.

The Intel event, co-sponsored by consumer rights organization DigitalConsumer.org, proved largely a rallying of voices opposed to the strictest interpretations of copyright law supported by Hollywood, record labels and other copyright holders. Several companies that are being sued under broad interpretations of the DMCA, including a printer cartridge maker and a manufacturer of garage door openers, explained their lawsuits.

Stanford University law professor Larry Lessig outlined a plan for so-called compulsory licenses for copyrighted works, a strategy that would require movie and music companies to allow other people to use digital works but require payment to artists and other copyright holders. Variations of that idea are gaining traction among legal circles opposed to Hollywood's attempts to strengthen copyright law.

"Never in our history have fewer been in a position to control more of the creative potential of our society than now," Lessig said. "We have to buy them off, so they don't break the Internet in the interim."

Much of the event, including discussion of the labeling proposal, was centered on how to galvanize a broader consumer movement that would counteract the legislative and legal drives mounted by Hollywood and record companies.

"Intel is very supportive of consumer notification," said Donald Whitehouse, an Intel vice president of legal and governmental affairs. "A reasonable objective is to get consumers engaged through labeling of content."

Wyden, who has been a supporter of expanded consumer rights in the past, cautioned attendees that restrictions on digital media use were far from the top of most average voters' minds, despite the issue's high profile in Silicon Valley circles.

"As much as you all out there are consumed by this right now, most Americans are not out there reading the advance sheets of the appeals courts," Wyden said. "Nobody's asking about this in town meetings in my district. We have the second-highest unemployment rate in the country, and that's what people care about."

 

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