Net Politics Focus: House of Reps. passes copyright legislation

After nearly three years of often divisive debate, the U.S.

After nearly three years of often divisive debate, the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday passed legislation to strengthen copyright on the Internet. The action handed a hard-fought victory to software, recording and motion picture industries that had pressed for the measure as well as a compromise to naysayers who now say they can live with the bill.

"Members of the House . . . recognised that in order for the Internet to succeed, Congress must take action to protect the rights of those who market their products in the digital arena," said Robert Holleyman, president of the Business Software Alliance.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act defines for the first time ever the crime of "circumvention," or the deliberate removal of copy-protection mechanisms from software and other digital media. Copyright owners had pushed for the statute since many use technical protections to prevent piracy in the first place. Consumer, academic and computer hardware groups, however, fought the anti-circumvention provisions, saying copying already protected under "fair use" - classroom use, personal archiving and the like - would be endangered without specific language protecting it. As it turned out, they lost that point, but got some concessions to address their concerns, thanks to language passed by the House Commerce Committee last month and included in Tuesday's action.

The bill specifically lets software companies circumvent anti-copying technology when that circumvention is necessary to make software or hardware compatible with other products, to conduct encryption research or to keep personal information from being spread via Internet "cookies" or other copy-protection tools. "It's not that bad. It surprised me a lot," said Sheri Steele, counsel to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "The one really bad thing is they tacked on the database bill. And the criminal provisions are still really horrible - the penalties are a $500,000 fine and five years in prison."

Yet a whole host of other activities - computer security research and many forms of reverse engineering - failed to win similar protections under the bill. As a result, a group of 11 computer scientists told the House last week that the bill may leave computer security researchers open to criminal prosecution as well as frivolous lawsuits by companies that wish to muzzle news of insecurities in their products. "If passed in anything similar to its present form, [the Digital Millennium Copyright Act] has the potential to imperil computer systems and networks throughout the U.S., criminalise many current university courses and research in information security, and severely disrupt a growing American industry in information security technology," according to Purdue University professor Gene Spafford. "The result would be grave damage to the U.S. economy and to national security."

Adam Eisgrau, counsel to the American Library Association, said his group can live with the bill. "The most significant aspect of the House action is the news that this bill is both about protecting intellectual property and affording the kind of access to it that is protected under the Copyright Act," he said.

At the same time, the House added to the bill a more controversial measure that criminalises excessive copying of databases, even when those databases contain information already in the public domain. Database companies such as West Publishing say they need that protection to keep their works from being ripped off wholesale. But since the proposed law would punish anyone who "impairs" the market for a database through republishing part or all of it, university researchers fear their rights to summarise even government data could disappear. "The House is really more committed to getting something passed on database than getting it right," said Alex Fowler, a spokesman for the EFF. "They keep going for these tactics that don't involve any debate. The consequence is what is really a very controversial change in protection for collections of information has really not been vetted at all."

The Senate, which was scheduled to take up the database bill for the first time next month, must now reconcile its version of the copyright bill with the House's, which includes the database language. Negotiators from each side are expected to present their views in Senate negotiations this week.