WASHINGTON — The nation’s librarians dealt a serious setback to the powerful entertainment lobby Wednesday: The shelvers succeeded in blocking progress of two international intellectual property treaties that copyright owners insist are critical to the future of online commerce.
Negotiations that lasted until midnight Tuesday failed to produce an agreement, so the House Commerce Committee delayed, until July 21, its vote on the legislation — which would change U.S. law to enable ratification of the World Intellectual Property Organization treaties.
Participants in the talks included reps of the copyright-rich showbiz industries (movies, recordings, software and publishing), who sat across the table from the American Library Assn. and the Consumer Electronics Manufacturing Assn.
Some observers worry that the last- minute glitch in the treaty-implementation bill could ultimately kill its chances of passage before the next round of Congressional elections in November.
It was surprise to many that the ALA was the stumbling block. While the consumer electronics industry had already won several concessions, the librarians did not make a significant impact on the progress of the bill until this week.
The ALA wants language added to the legislation that they say would guarantee libraries the same “fair use” rights to copy material available on the Internet that they have now in the analog world of printed paper. Under the “fair use” doctrine, libraries can make copies of material for the benefit of researchers and educators.
But the entertainment, publishing and software industries adamantly oppose the ALA, claiming they are trying to create new rights in the digital world.
Motion Picture Assn. of America prexy Jack Valenti said that, in effect, the librarians want the right to make infinite copies of any copyrighted material they buy on the Internet. He also said there does not appear to be a lot of middle ground between the two sides. “We can’t compromise on something that is the very heart of our business,” said Valenti.
Alan Adler, vice president of legal and government affairs of the Assn. of American Publishers, said the ALA is failing to take into account the difference between the ethereal digital world and the analog world of newspapers and magazines that are delivered to a doorstep and can be kept on shelves. In many cases, Adler noted, the rights to a digital copy expire and must be renewed. He claimed the ALA is trying to leverage their “lawful initial access” into “perpetual ownership.”
Some observers worry that ALA’s objections could end up defeating legislation that has already passed the Senate in a 99-0 vote. The Commerce Committee was not even expected to take up the legislation, which has already been approved by the House Judiciary Committee.
The U.S. Telephone Assn.’s Larry Clinton worried that the ALA could effectively derail the WIPO implementation legislation. “I think this could push the content guys off the cliff,” said Clinton. The USTA is a supporter of the bill. During the next month, the MPAA and the Recording Industry Assn. of America will be try to reach an agreement with the librarians while also doing their best to improve their political strength with the Commerce Committee’s leadership.
The bill would modify U.S. law so that it comes into compliance with the WIPO treaties, which copyright-rich industries say are needed to protect their interests in the digital age. As electronic commerce takes off during the next decade, the recording and movie industries are growing increasingly alarmed over the ease with which almost perfect digital copies can be made and distributed with a few key strokes on a $1,000 computer.
In other news, the Commerce Committee approved a bill that would delay for one year the implementation of a hike in the copyright fees paid by satcasters for a license to retransmit broadcast television channels.