Copyright Bills Crowd U.S. Congressional Agenda

By Crosby, John | Information Outlook, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Copyright Bills Crowd U.S. Congressional Agenda


Crosby, John, Information Outlook


Last December, when the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) approved two new treaties concerning copyright protection in the digital age, someone should have predicted that the U.S. Congress would not consider the treaties until the eleventh hour.

Just prior to leaving Washington for summer recess, legislation was introduced in both the House and the Senate that would amend existing U.S. copyright law in order to observe the agreements made during the WIPO diplomatic conference. with a deadline for global ratification of the treaties set for midnight, December 31, 1997, time is of the essence. Congress has a full plate to consider prior to adjournment for the year. With the 1998 budget and several other commitments waiting in the wings, there's not much time for serious debate on copyright law.

No one should be surprised. Earlier this year, the Chemical Weapons Convention Treaty was approved at a very late hour. In 1993, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was ratified on the last possible day. With the WIPO Treaties, Congress must ratify them and ensure that U.S. law is compliant. Ratification will be easy. It's the implementation within U.S. law that will be difficult.

H.R. 2281 and S. 1121, both titled "The WIPO Treaties Implementation Act", would institute a ban on all devices that are used to circumvent copyright protection systems. Additionally, both would hold individuals liable for removing copyright management information that is designed to protected copyrighted works.

The "black box" provision - as the proposal has been described - threatens to stifle innovation and would negate whatever rights are accorded to users under copyright law. It could be read by a court to prohibit the use of any electronic components in the design of a recorder or computer that fail to respond to any anti-copy technology that a content owner might choose.

If enacted, the proposal would:

* damage education and research by allowing copyright owners to "lock up" public domain materials, and frustrate the "fair use" rights of information consumers;

* impede encryption research, which helps ensure secure networks;

* prevent legitimate "reverse engineering" in the development of new software (effectively overturning a series of judicial decisions recognizing it as a legitimate "fair use");

* outlaw or force the redesign of perfectly legitimate devices with substantial non-infringing uses (effectively overruling the Supreme Court's Betamax decision that spawned the VCR revolution to the benefit of all American consumers);

* give judges the authority to second-guess manufacturers' decisions about the best design for new generations of consumer electronic equipment and computers;

* frustrate efforts to provide parents with the capability to monitor and control children's online activities; and

* threaten the personal privacy rights of electronic consumers by penalizing those who resist efforts to track their online usage. …

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