Looser Digital Copyright Laws Urged

WASHINGTON -- A group of technology vendors, consumer rights groups, and ISPs are banding together to support 18-month-old U.S. House legislation that would let consumers make personal copies of copyrighted digital products, including movies and music.

The Personal Technology Freedom Coalition has kicked an effort to push the Digital Media Consumers' Rights Act through Congress. The legislation was introduced in January 2003 by Representative Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat. It would allow consumers to break copy controls to do such things as make personal copies of compact discs or movies. Supporters say the bill is necessary to protect consumers' so-called fair-use rights to make personal copies, which the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) curtails.

"We don't think it's illegal to buy CDs and videos and make a small number of copies for personal use," says Representative Joe Barton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "Under the DMCA ... it's become virtually impossible to do that. We're not trying to make it open season for piracy or anything like that."

Chair's Endorsement

The bill, which would roll back some DMCA prohibitions against circumventing copy-control technologies, got a better chance of passage when Barton, a Texas Republican, was named to chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee in February.

Barton, a co-sponsor of the Boucher bill, says he plans to schedule a session for the committee to consider and amend the legislation by July, then move the bill to the House floor. Even though the bill has gone nowhere in a year and a half and faces tough opposition from some lawmakers and entertainment companies, Boucher and Barton say they believe the House will pass it this year.

The Personal Technology Freedom Coalition kicked off its campaign Tuesday with a Capitol Hill press conference and support from more than two dozen organizations and companies. Supporters range from the United States Student Association and Consumers Union to tech giants Intel, Sun Microsystems, and Gateway. Four major telecommunications carriers and ISPs, including Verizon and BellSouth, also joined the coalition.

The coalition launched on the same day that the Recording Industry Association of America has announced 482 new lawsuits, including 206 in Washington, D.C. for alleged copyright violations over music-sharing peer-to-peer services. The RIAA and the Motion Picture Association of America, which have led the fight against digital piracy, didn't immediately respond to requests for comments about the new coalition.

Rally for Digital Rights

Speakers at the kick-off press conference argued the DMCA's anticircumvention provisions are stifling technology innovation. Rep. John Doolittle, a California Republican, held up an Apple Computer iPod and said technologies such as the iPod don't make sense if consumers can't legally copy their CDs to the iPod.

Some companies use the DMCA to stifle research into security holes, added Ed Black, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association.

"It is an attempt to use intellectual property not really to protect intellectual property, but to block competition," Black said.

Boucher's bill does not spell out how many personal copies constitute fair use and how many add up to a copyright violation. Before the DMCA, courts determined when an activity was piracy and when it was fair use, and the bill would allow the court review to continue, Boucher said.

Asked how many copies are allowed under fair use, Mark Cooper, research director of the Consumer Federation of America, said the DMCA doesn't allow consumers to circumvent copy controls to make even one copy. People who make 1000 copies of a copyrighted work and sell it should go to jail, but people who make less than 50 copies should be safe from the threat of lawsuits or prosecution, Cooper said.

"The gray area is pretty small with respect to piracy," Cooper said.

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