Copyright Office backs digital law

In a decision giving copyright holders greater control over the way people use books, movies and music that are distributed in digital form, the United States Copyright Office on Friday endorsed a new federal law making it illegal to break the technological safeguards for such works. The statute goes into effect immediately.

The ruling was a defeat for several constituencies — including universities, libraries and computer programmers — that had argued that the law should preserve traditional rights to archive and lend out copyrighted material or to use so-called reverse-engineering to understand how a piece of technology works.

The provision endorsed by the copyright office is part of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Congress passed the act to update the copyright law for the digital era, when copying on a mass scale is far easier than it has ever been. Under the act, it is illegal to create or distribute a device like a computer program that can crack the copy- protection security code on an electronic book or a DVD movie disc.
This year, a federal judge found that a Web site had violated the law by distributing a program designed to break the security code on DVD’s so that they could be played on computers running the Linux software operating system.

But when the judge issued the ruling, the law did not prohibit the actual use of such a device by individuals because of the pending review by the copyright office. Congress had asked the copyright office to determine whether any exemptions were necessary to ensure that the rights of the users of copyrighted works were balanced with those of copyright holders.

Media companies including Sony and Time Warner had argued that the statute was necessary to protect their digital material, like computer games and movies, from widespread unauthorized use. But groups like the Association of American Universities, the American Library Association and the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration maintained that broad exemptions were necessary to preserve the ‘fair use’ rights of individuals.

After holding several hearings and receiving comments for almost two years, the copyright office said repeatedly in its ruling that the proponents of various kinds of exemptions had not demonstrated evidence that there would be ‘substantial harm’ if an exemption was not granted.

The ruling, issued by the Library of Congress, which oversees the copyright office, will be in effect for three years, during which the copyright office will continue to examine its effect.

In a statement, the Library of Congress said that it intended to ask Congress to reconsider that time frame, noting the ‘potential damage to scholarship may well ensue in the course of a three-year period.’

Under the law, civil statutory damages for gaining access to a piece of copyrighted material secured by computer code range from $200 to $2,500. Criminal penalties includes fines of as much as $1 million or 10 years in jail for repeat offenses.

Hmm. Seems a lot easier to simply pay the $10-$20 up front for the disc, don’cha think?

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