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IT firms add backing to digital rights bill

Intel, Gateway and Sun Microsystems have joined a list of companies and organistions representing the IT industry, consumers and libraries supporting the latest digital rights management (DRM) bill introduced in the US Congress.

Representatives of Intel and Gateway were on hand to speak in favour of the Digital Media Consumer Rights Act of 2002, which was formally announced at a news conference by Congress Representatives Rick Boucher, a Democrat from Virginia, and John Doolittle, a Republican from California.

The principal goal of the bill is to reaffirm the "fair use" doctrine of US copyright law to cover digital material, including music, books and other content that typically is copyrighted, Boucher said. The bill would also require proper labelling of "copy-protected" compact discs so that consumers know when they buy a CD what device it can be played in.

Supporters of the bill say protecting the fair use doctrine, which permits limited personal use of legally obtained copyrighted material, is extremely important for consumers and manufacturers of devices as digital content becomes more readily available for use on a growing number of gadgets.

"Fair use is a pressure valve on what would otherwise be total monopoly control by the copyright owner over the use of the copyrighted material," Boucher said.

The bill aims to change a section of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA) that Boucher said dramatically tilted the copyright balance toward complete copyright protection. The DMCA enables the copyright owner to place technical protection measures on his or her material and says anyone who circumvents the protection measure could face legal consequences.

Doug Comer, Intel's director of legal affairs and technology policy, said Intel has worked for years to develop technical protection methods to protect against copyright infringement and will continue to do so. However, the company believes such protective measures should accommodate fair use of the content.

"There has been a disturbing trend over the past two years of content owners using the DMCA copyright laws to target fair use of the content and threaten action against individual users," said Comer. "This legislation is needed to correct the balance. The focus should be on true offenders who distribute works without approval of copyright owners and not on individuals exercising traditional legal rights."

Boucher said that, given the limited time remaining on the congressional calendar, he is not seeking enactment of the Digital Media Consumers' Rights Act before the current session of Congress adjourns. Rather, he is looking for a chance to lay out arguments in favour of the bill in preparation for debate and discussion in the next session, which will begin next year.

"I'm absolutely confident that this measure, or something that's very close to it, is going to be enacted into law, and when that happens we will have a substantial and very helpful rebalance in the copyright law," Boucher said.

Specific language in the bill addresses the circumvention of technical protections placed on digital material, Boucher said, using the famous example of a Linux user who wanted to play a DVD on his home computer, but first had to write a program to bypass the technical protection on the DVD.

"Even for this limited purpose, he is liable under the DMCA," Boucher said.

The scope of the bill, however, does not address peer-to-peer file-sharing technologies, which Boucher said only fall within the fair use doctrine if the users are distributing uncopyrighted materials or material that the copyright owner wants to be distributed across a peer-to-peer network.

"This legislation is designed to address circumvention devices, and it really is drafted in such a way as is limited to circumvention devices, and peer-to-peer file sharing [networks] really are not circumvention devices," Boucher said. Although he said the legitimate peer-to-peer networks are "a very helpful expansion of the Internet architecture," they do not constitute fair use if they are distributing copyrighted songs without the copyright owner's consent.

Another important provision of the bill deals with encryption. The provision expands the existing exemption from the prohibition on circumvention devices that accommodates encryption research.

"We expand that to research on technical protection measures, because there are some technical protection measures that are not, strictly speaking, encryption," Boucher said, citing watermarks as an example. "In order to test these other kinds of technical protection measures, this research exemption needs to be expanded. The scientific community is very interested in this, and that's why it's in the bill."

In addition to Intel, Gateway and Sun, Verizon Communications and Philips Electronics have publicly expressed their support for the bill. The organisations that lined up behind the bill include the Consumer Electronics Association, the Computer & Communications Industry Association of America, the Digital Future Coalition, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and five nationwide library associations.

Boucher said the bill would be referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, of which he is a member.

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