Congress Holds a Civil Copyright Reform Hearing

By Pike, George H. | Information Today, July-August 2013 | Go to article overview

Congress Holds a Civil Copyright Reform Hearing


Pike, George H., Information Today


Congress is dipping its first cautious toe into what might be an ocean of legislative debate to comprehensively update and reform U.S. copyright law. During a May 2013 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet, legislators and witnesses identified the need to broadly investigate the fundamental principles underlying copyright law in light of the dramatic technological and economic changes that have occurred since copyright law's last major reform. The focus of the hearing was less on specific proposals and more on the process of getting to copyright reform and the broad issues that will need to be addressed.

Formal copyright law dates from hundreds of years ago with England's 1710 Statute of Anne being recognized as one of the first comprehensive copyright laws. And 74 years later, the U.S. recognized the importance of intellectual property protection by enshrining it into the Constitution by giving Congress the authority to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." During the next 2 centuries, Congress acted on several occasions with major and minor copyright enactments, often in response to "ingenious and elaborate invention," a quote used in a 1909 House report that commented on the inventions of the phonograph and motion pictures.

Copyright Act of 1976

The last major comprehensive revision of copyright law culminated in the current Copyright Act of 1976, which is found in Title 17 of the U.S. Code (law.cornell.edu/uscode). This revision occurred at the dawn of the computer age and recognized some of the impact these new technologies would have on copyright owners and users. The law was intended to be technology-neutral by referring to "medium[s] of expression, now known or later developed...." Copyrights were made easier to obtain, they became virtually automatic once the work was "fixed," and registration with the U. S. Copyright Office became optional. The Copyright Act also formally incorporated the Fair Use and First Sale doctrines, as well as a dedicated section on the rights of libraries. The term of copyright was also expanded, and higher penalties were put into place.

The 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) attempted to address some issues that were driven by the then-rapidly developing internet. Copyright owners were given new power to request that websites and internet service providers (ISPs) remove alleged infringing content from a site. In return, the websites and ISPs were given immunity from liability for hosting the infringement, if they responded promptly. The DMCA also made it a violation of copyright law to circumvent any copyright protection system that the copyright holder put in place.

A Cultural Lightning Rod

In the intervening 37 years since the appearance of the Copyright Act and 15 years since the DMCA, copyright has exploded into the public consciousness in a manner never seen before. The rise of CD and DVD ripping, Napster, The Pirate Bay and peer-to-peer file sharing, ebooks, digital streaming, user-generated digital content, and digital rights management structures all brought public attention to copyrights. Copyright law went from being known mainly because of the [C] symbol in books and at the end of movies to being a cultural lightning rod in an increasingly divisive battle between copyright owners who wanted to preserve their rights and returns and those users who believed that access was paramount. …

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