June 10, 2003 6:10 PM PDT

Legislator warns FCC on digital TV

WASHINGTON--A key legislator in the House of Representatives warned Tuesday that copy protection used in the transition from analog to digital television broadcasts must protect Americans' "fair use" rights.

In a carefully worded speech, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House subcommittee overseeing copyright law, said that future Federal Communications Commission regulations involving digital TV should not "have an adverse affect on how consumers may legitimately use lawfully acquired entertainment products."

Smith also signaled his firm opposition to a bill introduced last year by Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., which would implant mandatory copy-protection technology in PCs and consumer electronics devices. "I am skeptical of government mandates on the technology industry...Until evidence shows otherwise, I believe existing copyright law is adequate," Smith told a one-day conference organized by the Progress and Freedom Foundation.

Smith called for greater disciplinary action against peer-to-peer pirates at universities, saying that research showed 16 percent of the files available on Kazaa are located at schools and universities. "It's unlikely that this amount of file-sharing activity is in furtherance of class assignments," Smith said.

Cary Sherman, president and general counsel of the Recording Industry Association of America, said in an interview after Smith's speech that "this is something he feels very deeply about. He's been pressing universities to be very aggressive on this issue. For that reason, I wasn't surprised by his speech."

Tuesday was not the first time that Smith questioned the FCC's digital TV proposals. During a March hearing, Smith questioned the FCC's "broadcast flag" proceeding relating to digital TV, saying that copy-protection rules were being set by an executive branch agency instead of by the appropriate committee in Congress. Although Smith's intellectual property subcommittee is responsible for drafting copyright laws, the Energy and Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over the FCC.

The FCC has not yet decided to go forward with a broadcast flag rule. The movie studios say that a law or FCC rule will be necessary to require that televisions sold after a certain date recognize the flag and, if it is present, limit consumers' rights to distribute digitally transmitted shows without restrictions.

But at that March hearing, Democrat Howard Berman, whose Southern California district borders Hollywood, said he was worried that the FCC could veer in a direction that might mandate "fair use" rights that would not be favorable to the entertainment industry. "I'm opposed to the FCC attempting to...limit the exclusive rights of copyright holders in its broadcast flag rule making," Berman said.

In February, Smith convened a hearing to discuss peer-to-peer piracy on college campuses. Members of the panel said that piracy was a federal crime that should be punished as such, likening it to assault, battery and murder.

 

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