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Senate Passes WIPO Bills; House Vote Still to Come
James Lichtenberg -- 5/25/98
With a ringing endorsement, the U.S. Senate has passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, called by Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) "one of the most important pieces of technology legislation of the 105th Congress."
Reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee to a unanimous 99-0 vote by the full Senate on May 14, this bill, S. 2037, along with corresponding legislation approved by the House Judiciary Committee, HR 2281, represents the efforts of the U.S. Congress to bring copyright legislation into the digital age. Its purpose also is to harmonize U.S. law with recent WIPO treaties.

Noting his satisfaction with the Senate action, Allan Adler, v-p of Legal Affairs at the Association of American Publishers, said the vote reflects "all the work that copyright owners and users have done during the Judiciary Committee markup process."

Emery Simon, counselor to the Business Software Alliance Board of Directors (which represents the major manufacturers of hardware and software in the U.S.), told PW, "This bill affirms that copyright applies in digital network environments just as in other media -- print, film and recording."

Among its key provisions, the bill would make it a violation of U.S. law to circumvent any copyright protection mechanism, as well as to remove any copyright management information that owners of intellectual properties choose to attach to a digital document. And the reaffirmation of the copyright owner's distribution rights in a digital environment will make it easier to pursue copyright piracy overseas.

Major provisions of the bill also respond to concerns of the library and academic communities about losing basic rights of fair use in cyberspace, including the right to copy and share digital documents for purposes of archiving and preservation, as per Section 108 of the U.S. Copyright Law. Adam Eisgrau, legislative counsel to the American Library Association in Washington, said, "We are extremely pleased by the Senate's absolute commitment to update not only rights of ownership but also rights of access."

In the view of the Digital Futures Coalition -- which includes the ALA -- a group that represents information consumers, one crucial issue still remains with regard to "access" rights. The bill creates what Eisgrau termed "a new criminal offense" through its prohibition against circumventing protections. As the law is written, simply gaining access to a copyright owner's protected digital material is unlawful, even for "benign" purposes. "We hope that this 'technical imbalance' will be corrected in the House," Eisgrau said.

According to Simon, the Senate vote means that, in all likelihood, there will be signed legislation before the end of the year. However, obstacles remain in the House.
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