Library official at center of digital rights fight

`Fair use' practices re-examined for new age

October 20, 2002|By Edmund Sanders | Edmund Sanders,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - The Library of Congress, home to about 18 million books, many dating to the mid-19th century, might be the last place you would expect to find somebody at the center of one of the hottest debates of the digital era.

But Marybeth Peters, who for 38 years has labored away in the U.S. Copyright Office, an obscure arm of the library, is serving as referee in the battle between entertainment companies that are trying to control the copying and piracy of their content, and technology companies and consumers eager to explore new conveniences offered by the Internet.

Today, Internet radio stations were scheduled to start paying music royalties to record labels, threatening an untold number of small Webcasters that couldn't afford the fee imposed by the Library of Congress. Record companies agreed Friday to defer most of the royalties they're owed, temporarily defusing that issue.

But Internet radio is just one of many areas of debate in which Copyright Register Peters and her office will play a big role. As the federal government's top expert on copyright law, she will have a significant influence on how people can download music, tape TV programs and copy or sell e-books.

Her agency recently declared that consumers - who are free to sell books and CDs that they have legally acquired - should have no such rights when it comes to e-books or digital music.

And the Copyright Office has denied virtually every request by librarians, educators and consumers seeking exceptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The law makes it a crime to bypass copy-protection devices in CDs, DVDs and other digital products, even to make a legally permissible copy.

Peters believes that many "fair use" practices consumers take for granted, such as taping a TV program or copying a magazine article, need to be re-evaluated in the digital age because the economic harm to copyright owners is far greater. For instance, she believes song-swapping over the Internet, popularized by Napster, is illegal.

"Some of the activities you tolerate in a nondigital world are because of the inefficiency of making the copy, how the copy is degraded and the difficulty in sending copies to someone beyond yourself," Peters said. "All of those things go away in a digital environment."

As Congress has deferred some of the stickiest questions to the Copyright Office, Peters finds herself in the uncomfortable position of having to set many of the ground rules for the digital age and, in some ways, pick the winners.

"They are more at the center of controversies over money than ever before," said Ralph Oman, former head of the Copyright Office.

The office registers about a half-million new works a year of books, plays, poems, motion pictures, photographs, sculptures and software.

Peters, 63, a former high school teacher who started as a music examiner at the Copyright Office, worked her way up after attending George Washington University Law School at night. She concedes that the Copyright Office is struggling to keep pace with the new rulemaking duties. "Congress keeps giving us things to do, and some of them have taken over our lives," Peters said.

Edmund Sanders is a reporter with the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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