Newly appointed House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, is backing legislation that would amend a landmark 1998 copyright law to allow educators, librarians, and other consumers to make copies of digital video disc (DVD) movies and other digital content for certain “fair-use” purposes.
Sponsors of the proposal describe it as a consumers’ rights bill for digital media that would allow consumers to bypass encryption locks built into DVD movies by Hollywood to prevent copying. Such encryption schemes are increasingly common in music and movies, frustrating educators’ attempts to make copies of movies they have legitimately purchased for personal or classroom use.
Supporters of the change say the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) prohibits consumers from using specialized software to bypass such electronic locks, even when making copies of discs only for their own “fair” use. But Hollywood studios and the music industry say the bill would lead to more piracy and lost sales.
A federal appeals court in February banned sales of popular DVD-copying software from a St. Louis company, 321 Studios Inc., saying the company’s software violates the 1998 law. (See “Film studios prevail against DVD copying software,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4971.) But similar software continues to be distributed freely across the internet by programmers.
H.R. 107, the Digital Media Consumers’ Rights Act, was introduced in January 2003 but has languished in committee until Barton–who took over as committee chairman after Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., resigned in February–called a hearing May 12 to push the bill forward.
“We went way overboard as a Congress in enacting that  legislation,” Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., one of the authors of H.R. 107, said at the May 12 hearing before the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection. “This bill represents the first tangible opportunity to redress those wrongs.”
Lawrence Lessig, an expert on internet law at Stanford University, said technology to break digital locks should be permitted when consumers make copies for legal purposes, such as making backup discs. Lessig called the bill “an extraordinarily important first step in restoring the balance in copyright law.”
Miriam Nisbet, legislative counsel for the American Library Association, agreed. Nisbet noted that the DMCA’s current prohibitions stifle the ability of schools and libraries to preserve and archive digital content and take full advantage of other “fair-use” exceptions for education and research provided under federal copyright law.
But movie and music executives warned that the proposal would strip their industries of important tools to limit piracy. The head of the Motion Picture Association of America, Jack Valenti, showed lawmakers a copy of the DVD mystery “Runaway Jury” he said was purchased on the black market in downtown Washington and produced using 321’s disputed software. Valenti said the bill “legalizes hacking.”
The chief executive for 321 Studios, Robert Moore, said his company expected to generate $100 million in sales until February’s court decision banned its software. He said his company is now “on the brink of annihilation.”
Lessig testified that in its eagerness to staunch commercial piracy, Congress must not lose sight of the fact that fair use is a uniquely American tradition that has bolstered the nation’s economy and educational system.
Barton agreed, saying the balance between consumers’ and producers’ rights over copyrighted material needs to be restored to ensure that society progresses, not regresses, with the expansion of technology.
Further committee action on H.R. 107 is expected later this year.