Extending protection to Net transmissions may hurt access

Extending copyright protection to works transmitted over the Internet could restrict public access to government data and impose new burdens on users of computer networks, including taxpayer-funded libraries, Congress was warned recently.

At hearings before the House Judiciary Committee's Courts and Intellectual Property Subcommittee, witnesses agreed that music, films, literature, software and other digital works sent over the Internet should be protected from piracy.

But some contend that a bill sponsored by Rep. Carlos Moorhead (R-Calif.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), H.R. 2441 and S. 1284, would give digital publications more protection than the equivalent paper, video or compact discs. The measure is based on recommendations by the Clinton administration's Working Group on Intellectual Property Rights.

David Ostfeld, vice chairman of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers' U.S. Activities Board, said that under international intellectual-property agreements, even electronic mail is copyright-protected, and the bill would make the simple act of forwarding an e-mail message a violation of the law.

Furthermore, Ostfeld said, the way the bill defines the transmission of data—distribution by a device or process that would "fix" a copy "beyond the place from which it was sent"—would cripple distance-learning programs because users would be infringing on a copyright every time an educational session, or materials used in it, were reused.

This language, suggested Ostfeld and other witnesses, could also make browsing databases or on-line publications a copyright violation because when a user looks at information on-line, a copy is temporarily stored in his system.

"Almost nothing can be done in computer networks—certainly none of the cooperative research and educational activities—that doesn't involve electronic transmission," said Cornelius Ping, president of the Association of American Universities.

Ostfeld said even government data might be copyrightable if an agency hires a contractor to format it.

But Garry McDaniels, president of Skills Bank Corp., a publisher of educational software, said libraries and other institutions that distribute digital works could protect current "fair use" practices and satisfy copyright owners by making licensing agreements to transmit multiple copies of a work.

Some witnesses also objected to language in the measure that would outlaw devices designed primarily to be used to decode software that protects data from copying.

Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association, said the language could end up restricting mass-market computers just because they might be used for an illegal purpose.

The entertainment and publishing industries are pushing for swift enactment of the bill. Without it, they say, they will be reluctant to risk distributing their works on-line.

Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), a co-sponsor of the bill and the panel's ranking Democrat, said lawmakers will address some of the criticisms witnesses raised in future bills.

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