Consumers' Digital Rights Debated

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WASHINGTON -- The struggle to balance the rights of consumers and of copyright holders saw another battle Monday as a Congressional subcommittee considered a consumer rights act intended to liberalize what users can do with digital music.

Entertainment industry representatives warn that the Digital Media Consumers' Rights Act of 2003, introduced last year, would open the floodgates to piracy. Technology experts and educators argue that passage would restore rights to consumers and promote innovation.

The Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection Subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce listened to the arguments but took no action after the Wednesday hearing. The subcommittee is expected to act on the measure this session, however.

Examples Shown

Holding up his IPod, Representative John Doolittle (R-California) said, "This is an interesting device. It can download entire CD collections, entire books for now. It may be that people would be prevented from taking advantage of this convenient technology."

Also equipped with a visual aid, Jack Valenti, president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, held up a copy of the movie Pirates of the Caribbean.

"This tape was purchased in Chinatown in Washington, D.C.," he said, reading from its cover. He told the subcommittee that tools by 321 Studios produced the tape, and he pointed to a warning label indicating that reproduction for commercial use is prohibited--drilling home his point that labels and good faith hardly prevent illegal sales of DVDs.

Miriam Nisbet, representing the Council for the American Library Association, argued that one price of current laws forbidding duplication is a high cost to libraries, where the main goal is education through a free flow of information.

The bill "would enable libraries to make preservation copies of material on CDs, a preservation of knowledge," she said. "It would allow foreign language teachers to use products purchased abroad to be used in U.S. classrooms. None of these are currently allowed."

Other Arguments

Proponents say that the bill would require copy-protected CDs be clearly labeled, and would protect consumers from being prosecuted under anti-circumvention regulations in instances where no copyright law has been broken.

The bill's opponents argue that it's impossible to control how many additional--illegal--copies are made once one is permitted. But no technology allows duplication for personal use without also allowing for-profit duplication, industry representatives respond.

Both sides agree that a balance in copyright law is needed. The conflict is between consumers' rights and copyright holders' rights. The public wants access to information and technology, while copyright holders want to control the dissemination of their digital property.

"Taking a hammer to the weaving machines didn't stop the Industrial Revolution. The consumer poses little threat, I know," said Allan Swift, a former member of the House of Representatives. Swift told the subcommittee that he often takes songs from his CD collection and makes mixes for friends and family.

Those in favor of the bill argue that the same concerns and discussion took place when the VCR was first introduced. In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of fair use by consumers in Sony vs. Universal, the so-called Betamax case. Had the court ruled the other way, the DVD player might never have entered the market, they note.

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