WASHINGTON -- With talk of preemptive war all the rage on Capitol Hill, it seems that such posturing has extended into the world of digital copyright law.
On Thursday Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and Rep. John Doolittle (D-Calif.) introduced the Digital Media Consumers Rights Act to preserve specific fair-use rights to copy digital works as well as "circumvention" rights to bypass copy protections. With no chance of passage this year, the bill's introduction prepares the ground for battle in the next session of Congress.
Supporters are an unlikely coalition of electronics and computer interests, consumer groups and academics.
"It's just time," said a beaming Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association. "Consumers have been pushed up against the ropes. This is the first time in 20 years in which consumers are going on the offense rather than on the defense."
Content owners, meanwhile, rolled their eyes.
"If this bill were to be enacted, content owners would be left with two unhappy choices: Protect their valuable works by not making them available in digital formats such as DVD, or lose all control over unauthorized reproduction and distribution," said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.
The entertainment industry seeks to squash what it sees as rampant and illegal copying of digital content and, consequently, supports a bill introduced in July by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.).
The Berman bill would give copyright owners the legal right to disrupt the unauthorized use of their copyrighted works on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks and exercise other content controls. (Berman's office declined to comment on Boucher's bill.)
Although Boucher said his bill doesn't address the P2P question, it would seek to assert fair-use rights lost under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The fair-use doctrine allows consumers to make copies of copyrighted content for personal and other "non-infringing" uses.
"Under the 1998 law, copyright owners now have the power virtually to extinguish the fair-use doctrine with respect to material delivered in digital format," Boucher said.
Doug Comer, director of legal affairs and technology policy at Intel, said content owners use the DMCA to justify lawsuits against technology companies, stifling innovation.
"In our view, this has gone too far, and this legislation needs to restore the balance," he said.
Boucher's bill would allow consumers to circumvent copy protections for non-infringing uses.
But Valenti said that would simply permit the sale of devices advertized for infringing purposes "so long as they are 'capable' of non-infringing purposes."
In addition, Boucher's bill would empower the Federal Trade Commission to force record companies to put prominent labels on copy-protected CDs warning that they may not play in some stereos and computer CD-ROM drives.
A spokesperson for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) noted that the industry already puts "easily recognizable, conspicuous and standardized" labels on copy-protected CDs. "Mandatory copy-protection labeling legislation is unnecessary," the RIAA spokesperson added.
Critics argue, however, that the labels are too small and confusing. Consumers don't realize the limitations of such CDs until they insert them into certain players and find that they don't play.
"They have the same effect of sticking a tuna fish sandwich in that computer hard drive," said Chris Murray, Internet and telecommunications counsel at Consumers Union.
The Boucher bill also would allow researchers to break copy protections and post findings when done "solely in furtherance of scientific research."
Earlier this week, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) introduced a similar bill that also seeks to protect consumers' media copying and fair-use rights.
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