Copywright showdown

House panel debates Internet treaty legislation

WASHINGTON — Members of the House Telecommunications subcommittee signaled Friday they want to look closely at legislation that would bring U.S. copyright law into compliance with two international treaties aimed at making the Internet safer for copyright owners.

At a hearing Friday, several members including Commerce Committee chairman Tom Bliley (R-Va.) and ranking Democrat John Dingell (D-Mich.) said they were concerned that the bill could create problems for libraries and the consumer electronics industry in the name of copyright protection.

The statements by Bliley, Dingell and others came as a surprise to some observers who expected the Commerce Committee to approve the bill, which has already been signed off on by the House Judiciary Committee. But Bliley made it clear in his opening statement that he wanted to weigh in to the debate between copyright-rich industries including the recording companies and Hollywood studios and the electronics manufacturers. “One can see immediately that this debate will not be settled easily.”

Geneva accords

The legislation would bring the U.S. into compliance with the World Intellectual Property Organization treaties agreed to last year in Geneva. The treaties require the U.S. to make it illegal to circumvent technological efforts to protect copyrighted material. They also make it illegal to tamper with information about copyright ownership embedded in an individual copy of a work.

At issue is a provision, supported by the Motion Picture Assoc. of America and the Recording Industry Assoc. of America, that would make it illegal to manufacture and sell a device designed primarily to circumvent copyright protections. But Consumer Electronics Manufacturing Assoc. president Gary Shapiro said the provisions is vague and overly broad.

Shapiro insists that the provision will discourage innovation in computers, VCRs, set-top boxes and high definition televisions. “The uncertainty that will be created by this lack of definition will chill the introduction of new products and designs …,” Shapiro said.

Libraries concerned

Libraries are also concerned about the bill, saying it may make it illegal to copy works specifically for study and research.

But RIAA’s Hilary Rosen insisted during her testimony that the bill has been written precisely with the goal of bringing the U.S. into compliance with the WIPO treaties. “(The legislation) implements the treaty provisions … in minimalist fashion, meeting U.S. obligations without placing impediments to legitimate goods and services,” Rosen said.

At Friday’s hearing, the various parties staked out their positions. The next test comes on June 17, when the Telecommunications subcommittee begins drafting its own proposal. The full Senate has already approved its version of the legislation on a 99-0 vote.