Lawmaker fights for copyright fairness

Protection: Congressman working on legislation to tip the balance of power back to the consumers.

April 16, 2001|By Dan Gillmor | Dan Gillmor,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Public libraries don't need permission from publishers, Hollywood or the record companies when they lend books, videotapes and CDs to their patrons. And when you buy a CD, you're permitted to make a personal copy on a cassette tape so you can play the music in your car.

But public libraries are in jeopardy under new laws designed to protect copyright holders, and so are your rights to what's called "fair use" of what you've bought. This state of affairs is wrong, says Rep. Rick Boucher, one of the few members of Congress who cares about your rights in the Digital Age.

The Virginia Democrat plans to sponsor legislation to change a 1998 law that grossly altered the balance between holders and users of copyrighted material. He's up against one of the most ruthless and best-financed opponents in town: the entertainment industry. But he thinks he's gaining traction.

"The tide may turn," he said in an interview at his Capitol Hill office last week. "I see a growing level of concern."

The entertainment industry got its wish list in 1998 when it got Congress to pass one of the worst laws in a long time, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It gave the owners of copyrighted material almost total control over information created or converted into digital form.

Then, as now, there was "not a large lobby urging consumers' rights to be protected," Boucher said, with more than a bit of understatement. On the other side were the Motion Picture Association, the Recording Industry Association of America and other groups that cared only about maintaining total control over their property.

"The result," Boucher said, "is that some of our laws have tilted too much toward copyright owners at the expense of consumers. And there are threats of more dramatic restrictions of the rights of consumers."

The fight over what's called "intellectual property" crosses political boundaries. Some liberal Democrats have been among Hollywood's biggest supporters (and vice versa), while Orrin Hatch, the conservative Republican senator from Utah, has upbraided the music industry for its no-compromise stance against Internet distribution it doesn't utterly control. But Boucher has staked out the most pro-user stance, as far as I can see, and has won a reputation as activist.

He brings real expertise to this fight. A co-founder of the Congressional Internet Caucus and member of the House Judiciary Committee, he has been studying the intellectual property arena for years - and is deeply troubled by many of the outcomes, not just on the treatment of digital content.

The Constitution charges Congress 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." In 1790, a limited time was 28 years - 14 plus a renewal. In 1998, Congress extended the term, as it did repeatedly in the 20th century, so that the term is now the life of the author plus 75 years or, when the copyright is held by a corporation, 95 years.

"There was absolutely no justification" for such an extension, Boucher said. But there was vast corporate power aligned to push it through, and it passed.

Boucher has talked back to the entertainment industry. In a hearing about online music, he said, he told a spokeswoman for the record labels that "her industry is really missing the boat" by trying to sue out of existence every Internet-based distribution technology the industry can't absolutely control.

Rather than seeing the Net as a mortal threat, the industry "ought to see it as the most powerful distribution medium in history," he said. The best defense against Napster and other file-sharing technologies is for the music companies to create their own sites, cross-license with each other and then make the music available at fees attractive enough to win their business, he said.

"Most people understand that nothing is free," Boucher said. "Most people are willing to pay a reasonable price." But they need a way to do it that's convenient and indisputably legal - and which lets them use the music and other material in ways that don't eliminate their ability to make personal copies to play on other devices, make backup copies or rearrange songs in the order they prefer.

Boucher is getting ready to introduce legislation to amend the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act to achieve this and other worthwhile goals, to create a "better balance," he says.

You can help when the time comes. It's too early to write a letter to your member of Congress, Boucher said, because there's no specific legislation to back. In the meantime, Boucher is asking people to e-mail his office and be ready for follow-up alerts when the right moment arrives. Within an hour after an interview with Boucher was posted on the Slashdot Web site (, more than 500 people signed up. (If you're interested in supporting the initiative, send an e-mail to - Boucher says your e-mail address will be used only for this purpose and not shared with others.)

The copyright owners are exceedingly well-organized and financed. The rest of us need to stand up for fair use and the other rights the entertainment industry has taken away.

"I'm not predicting we will succeed this first time out," Boucher said. Eventually, he said, it will happen - "if we can encourage enough Internet users to stand up and be counted."

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