March 20, 2003 10:19 AM PST

Public to chime in on copyright law

WASHINGTON--Fans and foes of the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act soon will have another chance to tell the U.S. government what they think.

The Library of Congress' Copyright Office said on Thursday that it will hold a series of public hearings over the next two months in Washington, D.C. and California to decide what changes, if any, should be made to the section of the DMCA that restricts bypassing copy-protection schemes.

Anyone with strong feelings about the DMCA, one way or another, may submit a request by Apr. 1 to testify during the public forums, the Copyright Office said in its announcement. The hearing dates in the U.S. capital will be Apr. 11, Apr. 15 and May 2. The dates and locations in California have not been set yet.

The Copyright Office's announcement comes as criticism of the DMCA's "anticircumvention" restrictions has grown. With a few exemptions, section 1201 generally bars people from circumventing a "technological measure that effectively control access to a work," as well as creating or distributing tools to do the same. Copyright holders, led by groups such as the Business Software Alliance and the music and motion picture trade associations, have lobbied to keep that part of the DMCA intact. Critics, however, say it stifles legitimate research.

"I'm glad they're holding hearings," said Mike Godwin, technology counsel for the Public Knowledge advocacy group. "This will present a chance for people to show up and make their case and build a good record."

The hearings extend proceedings that started in November, when the Copyright Office began accepting comments from the public. The last round of comments was due on Feb. 20. During that round, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties group, asked that it be legal to bypass DVD region coding, skip ads on DVDs, and unlock copy-protected CDs.

When enacting the DMCA in 1998, Congress ordered the Copyright Office to conduct regular reviews of one portion of section 1201 of the law. The Librarian of Congress, who oversees the Copyright Office, may exempt specific groups from being covered by that part of the DMCA.

In October 2000, two exemptions were set: Researchers into filtering could study blacklisting techniques, and obsolete copy-protection schemes could be legally bypassed. Those exemptions are set to expire in October 2003.

But that part of the DMCA includes two broad prohibitions--on bypassing copy-protection technology and on distributing a program that bypasses that technology--and the Librarian of Congress is permitted only to offer exemptions to the former.

Because it won't affect researchers or companies that publish software code that circumvents copy-protection technology, the practical impact of the current proceeding may be limited. It probably would not have helped 2600 magazine, for instance, which the movie studios successfully sued for distributing a DVD-descrambling utility.

"The Copyright Office stresses that factual arguments are at least as important as legal arguments and encourages persons who wish to testify to provide demonstrative evidence to supplement their testimony," Thursday's announcement says. "While testimony from attorneys who can articulate legal arguments in support of or opposition to a proposed exempted class of works is useful, testimony from witnesses who can explain and demonstrate the facts is also solicited."

 

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