Bill Aims To Scale Back Controversial Copyright Act

A proposed law would let consumers technologically circumvent copy-protection schemes for fair use, but Hollywood and the music industry say the bill would create a license to hack and steal legally protected creative works.

George V. Hulme, Contributor

May 12, 2004

3 Min Read

Consumer groups made their push Wednesday to get Congress to amend the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to permit users to make personal copies of DVDs and CDs for limited purposes. But Hollywood studios and the music industry said doing so would lead to more piracy and lost sales.

Under the copyright act, passed in 1998, it's illegal to bypass technological copy-protection schemes to make backup copies of purchased work or to cut snippets of copyrighted materials for what has traditionally been called "fair use." It's even illegal to create tools to bypass copy-protection and encryption schemes for academics to conduct research, such as to learn how a software application may be vulnerable to attack. The act seeks to prohibit any hardware or software that can circumvent copy-protection schemes for digital media such as E-books, movies, and music.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Dick Boucher, D-Va., dubbed the Digital Media Consumers' Rights Act of 2003, aims to remove some of the restrictions that have made the Digital Millennium Copyright Act controversial among consumers, security researchers, and consumer-electronics lobbyists. The Digital Media Consumers' Rights Act would allow consumers to break copy-protection, or encryption, schemes for personal fair use. It would also amend the law to permit researchers to create software tools to make it possible to conduct scientific research into technological-protection measures, such as making software that would break an electronic watermark, which is one form of digital content protection. The bill would also require DVDs and CDs that are copy protected to be labeled so.

Hollywood isn't smiling on the proposed law. During a hearing before the House subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection, Jack Valenti, president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, said the bill has a defect that can't be fixed--it would legalize the hacking of copy-protection measures, which, in turn, would make it impossible to truly protect valuable creative property.

Valenti said that if passed, the bill would create "devastation" he didn't want to begin to comprehend. At one point, he showed lawmakers a copy of the DVD mystery Runaway Jury that he said was purchased on the black market in downtown Washington and produced using disputed software.

The bill "legalizes hacking," Valenti said. But others strongly disagreed with that characterization. Lawrence Lessig, a professor of law at Stanford Law School, said the proposed law is a good first step toward striking a balance between the concerns of copyright holders and the right of consumers to make legal copies for fair use.

Lessig argued that copyright law is "broken" in the digital age and that current laws are often "a tool the industry uses to protect itself against competition."

Miriam Nisbet, legislative counsel for the American Library Association, told the subcommittee that the bill would make legal what the Digital Millennium Copyright Act took away from libraries. Nisbet said the bill would let libraries circumvent copy-protection mechanisms in DVDs and CD-ROMs to make copies for preservation and archiving. She also said the bill would make it possible for foreign-language teachers to bypass copy protection for digital works bought overseas to be played on electronic devices purchased in the United States.

But Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, defended the 1998 law and said the proposed bill would destroy the balance of interests between copyright holders and the rights of consumers. "The amendments contained in this bill create not merely a loophole but an exception that swallows the rule, leaving copyright holders and content providers with no way to protect the works they create," he said.

Sherman cited popular online music services such as Apple Computer's iTunes and Napster 2.0 as examples of the marketplace meeting consumers' digital-media expectations.

Worldwide sales of pirated music now approach 2 billion units, worth an estimated $4 billion to $5 billion, Sherman said. He also said that the current total optical-disk-manufacturing capacity of 20 billion CDs, CD-ROMs, and DVDs "greatly exceeds legitimate demand."

The subcommittee has not set a date for when it will vote on the bill.

About the Author(s)

George V. Hulme


An award winning writer and journalist, for more than 20 years George Hulme has written about business, technology, and IT security topics. He currently freelances for a wide range of publications, and is security blogger at

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