February 26, 1998 5:25 PM PST

Copyright bill edges forward

Stronger copyright protection for digital works and software edged forward today in Congress despite fierce opposition from some high-tech factions.

The House Judiciary subcommittee on courts and intellectual property cleared a bill to ratify treaties signed at the World Intellectual Property Organization's diplomatic conference in Geneva in December 1996. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Howard Coble (R-North Carolina) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

The House subcommittee also approved a bill that would limit liability of Net access providers for copyright infringements made over their networks.

Opponents had sought the rejection of a provision making it illegal to create or sell a device that could circumvent so-called black box technologies designed to protect copyrighted material. This has been tacked onto U.S. and European legislation but was not adopted as part of the treaties.

Foes of the condition argue that the protection technologies will be used as gatekeepers that could, for example, allow companies to charge for admittance to what would be public material in a library.

"It's troublesome. We're creating a separate crime for defeating technology even if people have the right to see and use the material that is being [obstructed]," Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California) said.

Lofgren introduced an amendment to soften the criminal provision, but it was turned down. One change that was adopted created a narrow exception for libraries that defeat copyright protection devices for the sole purposed of reviewing materials they are interested in buying.

The amendment was an attempt to appease representatives of schools and libraries who have argued that the WIPO Copyright and Performances and Phonograms Treaty Implementation Act doesn't ensure "fair use" rights of material online.

The subcommittee's move was cheered today by the recording industry, which has been lobbying for new laws that prohibit copying and distributing music via the Net. The bill will now go to the full House Judiciary Committee.

"The committee did the right thing," said Jennifer Bendall, vice president of government affairs for the Recording Industry Association of America. "The message is clear: It is critical that the creative works of millions of Americans are protected and essential that copyright protection that will help strengthen and expand the Internet."

Countering the recording and software industry are groups that say current U.S. laws already protect digital intellectual property. "This bill would stifle innovations and competition in the high-tech area and therefore is inconsistent with the constitutional purpose of copyright law, which is to promote the sciences and useful arts," said John Scheibel, vice president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association.

The trade group and others support a competing bill by Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Missouri), which would make it a crime for a person--not technology--to circumvent anticopying devices.

 

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