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Register to Call for Major Revision to Copyright Law

Maria Pallante suggests refined terms, other moves for digital age

The U.S. Register of Copyrights plans to testify on Wednesday that Congress should make extensive revisions to copyright law, even suggesting some limitations to the length of copyright terms.

Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante will tell a House Judiciary subcommittee that current law is “showing the strain of its age” and that “authors do not have effective protections, good faith businesses do not have clear roadmaps, courts do not have sufficient direction, and consumers and other private citizens are increasingly frustrated,” according to prepared remarks.

She added that “if one needs an army of lawyers to understand the basic precepts of the law, then it is time for a new law.”

She is not suggesting reducing the copyright term, which  in most cases is the life of the author plus 70 years. But she said that a proposal to consider is one in which copyrighted works face reverting to the public domain after life-plus-50 years, unless heirs or successors register their interests to the Copyright Office. Pallante has said that such an idea would have “the purpose of injecting some balance into the equation.”

She also plans to suggest that Congress again take up the performance right for music, a hotly contested issue that has pitted the record industry against radio stations. Although musicians have argued that such a change would merely bring copyright law in line with other countries and other formats, proposals have failed to advance in Congress amid stiff opposition from the broadcast lobby.

Pallante noted in the remarks that the last major change to copyright law came in 1998, when Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which set guidelines for Internet providers and websites, as well as a general prohibition on circumvention of technological protection measures. But that law, too, has been subject to intense litigation, including the clarification of “safe harbor” provisions that are still being interpreted by the courts.

Other issues she cited include clarifying the scope of exclusive rights, updating the framework for cable and satellite transmissions and reforming the music marketplace. A hotly contested issue is whether digital goods can be purchased and then resold, or whether they exist only as a license.

Whether Congress takes on such a complex, and certainly contentious, endeavor remains to be seen. The last comprehensive revision of the Copyright Act came in 1976, and it took over two decades to negotiate. As Pallante plans to note to the congressional committee, it took so long that Barbara Ringer, the Register of Copyrights back then, came to call the revision a “good 1950 copyright law.”

“Because the dissemination of content is so pervasive to life in the 21st century, the law also should be less technical and more helpful to those who need to navigate it,” Pallante said.

Any comprehensive approach to revising the Copyright Act is likely to set off a wave of lobbying activity and, more than likely, a lengthy process of congressional hearings and review. The Motion Picture Assn. of America on Wednesday distributed a memo on Tuesday, calling for a discussion “based on facts, experience and rational analysis.”

“Any review of copyright must focus on whether the system as a whole provides for meaningful accountability on the part of those who infringe the rights of others, and whether there are adequate incentives for cooperation and accountability among other stakeholders,” the MPAA said.

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