WIPO gains erased?

Biz fears Congress won't approve treaties

WASHINGTON — After victories in both the House and the Senate, the entertainment industries are now worried that Congress may end the current legislative session without giving the necessary final approval to two international treaties designed to make the Internet a safer place to do business.

The World Intellectual Property Organization treaties have solid support, but they have been bogged down by a debate over changes to U.S. copyright law so that it is in compliance with the international agreements.

As usual, whenever Congress begins tinkering with an area of the law, special-interest groups rush in to take advantage of the opening. In this case, telephone companies, academics and publishers have used the WIPO implementation language to push for several changes they say are necessary to ensure the digital environment is a safe place to conduct commerce and research.

At a hearing held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Motion Picture Assn. of America president Jack Valenti urged the Senate to approve the treaties themselves and worry about the implementation language later. “We have to go ahead and ratify these treaties,” Valenti said.

But U.S. Telephone Assn. president Roy Neel opposed “decoupling” the treaties from the underlying legislation. That’s because Neel agreed to support the treaties only after winning changes to the U.S. copyright law that make it much harder to sue Internet service providers (ISPs) for piracy or fraud conducted over their networks. ISPs such as the Baby Bells and America Online are worried that they can be held liable for piracy conducted by their Internet customers.

Only Senate can ratify

The House and Senate have passed their own versions of the treaty implementation language and are now preparing to meet in an effort to hammer out their differences. Once these differences are resolved, the proposed changes to U.S. law and the treaty itself go the White House for approval. Although the House must approve any changes to the U.S. copyright code, only the Senate has the authority to ratify a treaty.

The two treaties would establish international copyright standards that Hollywood and Silicon Valley say are necessary in order to do business in the digital environment. Intellectual property owners worry that the ease of making copies and distributing them in the digital world will lead to an explosive growth in copyright piracy.

While the USTA’s Neel is trying to hold on to his gains, libraries and academic institutions are fighting a proposal approved by the House that would give copyright protection to information compiled in databases. Among the supporters of stronger property rights for databases is Daily Variety’s parent company, Reed-Elsevier Inc.

Start from scratch?

With so much bickering still going on, entertainment industry lobbyists are worried that they will have to start from scratch when the next Congress returns after November’s elections.

Another barrier to speedy approval emerged this week when independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr handed in his report on alleged impeachable offenses by President Clinton. Several members of the Judiciary Committee are supposed to participate in the House-Senate conference on WIPO. While potential impeachment proceedings would clearly take precedence over WIPO treaties, Valenti insisted Thursday that things could move forward. “Congress can handle more than one issue at a time,” he said.

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