October 9, 1998 11:55 AM PDT

Senate passes copyright act

The Senate has passed compromise legislation to impose new safeguards for software, music, and written works on the Net, and the House is expected to clear it by tomorrow.

As reported Wednesday, a joint-house conference committee resolved an array of issues regarding the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, including removing a contentious provision that would have given database owners broad powers to prevent others from using their valuable public data collections to launch competing businesses.

Still, lawmakers left in a provision to make it a crime in the United States to create, sell, or use any technology that could be used to break copyright protection devices, including encryption, firewalls, or digital watermarks. Violators could be charged up to $2,500 per act of circumvention.

In addition, the compromise bill still contains a provision created jointly by the Recording Industry Association of America, the Digital Media Association, and members of Congress to require Webcasters--such as the budding group of Net radio stations--to pay licensing fees to record companies, which could take a large chunk out of their gross revenues.

However, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is taking the lead to bring up the database bill as separate legislation next year.

Although the Senate approved the compromise bill, the House has yet to act and pulled the bill off its calendar yesterday. However, observers expect it to be taken up today or tomorrow.

The copyright legislation was introduced shortly after treaties signed at the World Intellectual Property Organization's Geneva conference on digital information and copyrights in December 1996.

But the U.S. bills go much farther than the treaties. That has sparked a heated debate. On one side are the powerful movie, record, and software industries arguing that they need better laws to protect intellectual property because the Net makes it easier for people to illegally copy and distribute their products, which in turn could stifle their e-commerce ventures.

On the other side are academia, computer researchers, and libraries, contending that several parts of the bill would let companies build a digital toll gate around their content, allowing them to charge people every time they access material that is now free in a library or purchased for indefinite use such as films in a home video collection--rights made possible under the "fair use" provision in current law.

Trying to find a balance between both sides, the conference committee made significant changes to the legislation.

Most importantly, the conferees scrapped a section to lay out new protections for electronic databases. In May, the House passed the Collections of Information Antipiracy Act as a stand-alone bill in addition to adding it to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

The provision would have made it illegal for others to extract information from a database and make it available elsewhere--if such an act would "harm" the database company's current or potential business.

Although foes of the database provision won that battle, there still is concern about the so-called black box provision, which makes it a crime to use, sell, manufacture, or import technologies that could be used to crack copyright protection devices.

The bill does permit cracking copyright protection devices to conduct encryption research, for the purpose of product interoperability, and to test computer security systems. The librarian of Congress also will work with the Commerce Department to study whether these technological barriers stifle fair-use access to copyrighted materials after the bill is passed.

The bill also carries a handful of safe harbors that limit Net access providers' liability for copyright infringements made by their customers.

 

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