Lawmaker Promises Changes to Online Copyright Law

A U.S. congressman said on Monday he intended to change a controversial copyright law to allow consumers to override technologies that prevent them from

A U.S. congressman said on Monday he intended to change a controversial copyright law to allow consumers to override technologies that prevent them from making digital copies of music, movies, and software.

Virginia Democratic Rep. Rick Boucher said he planned to introduce a bill that would eliminate the "anti-circumvention" clause of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a 1998 law that updated copyright laws for the digital era. Intended to discourage piracy, the clause has come under increasing fire over the past year by users who say it severely limits the rights of consumers to make personal backup copies or otherwise control music they have purchased. The clause has inspired high-profile court battles and made a minor celebrity out of Dmitri Sklyarov, the Russian programmer jailed for writing a program that defeated a copy-protection measure in Adobe Systems Inc.'s eBook software.

Boucher told an audience of musicians, lawyers, and music industry officials at the Future of Music policy summit that his bill would modify section 1201 of the DMCA to allow consumers to defeat copy-protection measures for legitimate personal uses, but would still outlaw circumvention efforts for piracy.

"I'm very concerned about the DMCA," Boucher said. "There's an increasing number of instances in which unjust results are reached." Boucher pointed out that Vivendi Universal's Universal Music Group will soon release its new CDs in copy-protected form, making them impossible to play on personal computers and some CD systems as well. Consumers should be able to use computer programs to defeat that copy protection, he said.

"What do you say to the guy who only wants to use that code so the CD he bought will play on his computer?" Boucher asked reporters after his speech. "That's harmless activity, yet under section 1201 he's guilty of a crime." Boucher said he did not know when he would introduce the bill in Congress, as he was still lining up support. The bill will face heated opposition, he acknowledged, as the recording and movie industries see section 1201 as a key measure in their battle against online piracy. Hilary Rosen, the recording industry's top lobbyist, said the music industry was simply following the practices of the movie and video-game industries. "As an industry, we are fully committed to ensuring the same, if not higher, audio quality and providing consumers with the same conveniences they've enjoyed in the past," said Rosen, president of the Recording Industry Association of America. However, Boucher did predict success for other digital copyright reforms introduced in his Music Online Competition Act (MOCA) last August.

"Major elements of MOCA almost certainly will be passed by the House, and by Congress, and signed into law," he said. The House Judiciary Committee will hold hearings in February or March, he said. One measure Boucher believes likely to pass would exempt music services from paying royalties on "buffer" copies stored in server computers. Another proposal that he sees enjoying widespread support would allow consumers to make backup copies of downloaded music they purchased. That provision could require structural changes to MusicNet and Pressplay, two new industry-supported online music services that impose limits on how the music may be used, Boucher acknowledged. Another measure will likely encounter stiffer resistance, he said. It would require recording companies to make their music available to independent Internet companies like Napster and on terms equal to those of its own services. The music industry says that the law will not be necessary as online offerings mature and become more comprehensive.

Boucher said MusicNet and Pressplay were a good start, but that there was no guarantee the industry would not freeze out independent sites. "We think that's essential for competition to thrive," he said.

Pressplay is a joint venture between recording companies Sony Corp. and Vivendi Universal. MusicNet is backed by media companies AOL Time Warner Inc., Bertelsmann AG, and EMI Group, as well as tech firm RealNetworks Inc. Both Web sites launched in December.