Digital Future Coalition Press Alert

For Immediate Release
June 4, 2020

Adam Eisgrau, American Library Association, (202) 628-8410
Peter Jaszi, American University, (202) 274-4216
Skip Lockwood, Digital Future Coalition, (202) 628-6048

June 5 Commerce Committee hearing to showcase controversial, fast- tracked bill that threatens competition, innovation, education, privacy and  public information access.


Commerce Committee to consider H.R. 2281

On Friday, June 5, the Commerce Telecommunications Subcommittee will hold a hearing on H.R.  2281, the controversial WIPO Copyright Treaties Implementation Act. Reflecting optimism about the  panel's commitment to promoting the benefits of new technology, Professor Peter Jaszi, a spokesperson for the Digital Future Coalition (DFC), said: "We trust the Committee's deliberations will begin the process of converting H.R. 2281 from a serious setback to an important opportunity for American companies and individuals who use electronic information networks for business or recreation." H.R. 2281, as originally proposed by the Clinton Administration and approved by the House Judiciary Committee, is sometimes  characterized as a measure to combat international intellectual property piracy. In fact, it would rewrite domestic laws regulating electronic information commerce to give sweeping and unprecedented new legal powers to a few large content-owning companies at the expense of major sectors of the American information economy.

Widely-opposed bill is not a compromise

Proponents of H.R. 2281 characterize it as a "compromise" between groups with competing interests in the new information environment. It is not. Those who support H.R. 2281 have neither sought nor achieved much in the way of middle ground. Were H.R. 2281 to be enacted in its present form, there would be a few big winners -- the movie, record, and publishing industries -- and many losers, including
the students, teachers, library patrons, high-technology hardware and software innovators, individual creators, and ordinary computer users who are represented by the 42 national organizations which make up the DFC. According to Jaszi, "the thrust of this legislation is anti-technology, anti-consumer, and anti-education. Although the WIPO treaties are important and worthwhile, there are other fairer and more balanced ways of bringing those treaties into effect. The DFC supports H.R. 3048, the alternative bipartisan proposal for implementing legislation introduced by Representatives Rick Boucher and Tom Campbell, which now has nearly 50 cosponsors, including 10 members of the Commerce Committee."

From the beginning of the debate over new digital copyright legislation, the DFC has urged that any implementing legislation should update the intellectual property laws for all parties, and not just for some. It has expressed concern over the failure of H.R. 2281 to address such important issues as the status of "distance education," "first sale," or "temporary reproduction" in the new electronic information environment. But at the heart of the DFC's concerns about H.R. 2281 are the proposed "anti-circumvention" (or "Section 1201") provisions of the bill, which go far beyond -- and actually contradict -- today's copyright law.

Legislation would harm innovators, students and consumers

Today, for example, television viewers are free to record programs for personal use, and electronics manufacturers can sell them VCR's for this purpose. Likewise, computer users are permitted to modify or make back-up copies of software they have purchased. In fact, anyone who buys any copy of a copyrighted work today can use it in a variety of ways -- by reading or viewing it, analyzing it, quoting it, criticizing it, or even giving it away -- without obtaining further permission from the copyright owner. Under H.R. 2281, all this could change. Content owners would be empowered to see civil and criminal sanctions against uses which the law of copyright now permits -- and against those who make or sell technologies which facilitate such uses. In effect, these owners would acquire an absolute veto power over all subsequent uses of works they distribute in commerce.

The practical effects of these new provisions would be quite far-reaching. As Gary Klein of the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association (CEMA) points out, H.R. 2281 would nullify the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Sony v. Universal, which enabled the VCR revolution -- and would prevent manufacturers from bringing to market the next generation of multi-function home electronics equipment." And John Scheibel of the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA) explains that "this legislation could seriously impair important research into encryption technology." Other effects would be felt as close to home as the local school or branch library, where, according to Adam Eisgrau of the American Library Association, "the electronic equivalent of today's reference books might be available to students and patrons only on a pay-per-use basis." Moreover, says Professor Jaszi, the provisions of H.R. 2281 could have a devastating impact on personal privacy, by "making it legally impossible for computer users to remove or disable software features designed to track and report on individuals' usage of electronic information."

Alternatives are available

The goal of making the network environment safer for electronic information commerce can be achieved without any of these adverse consequences. H.R. 3048, the Boucher/Campbell bill takes a targeted approach to discouraging misuse of new electronic technologies. Its provisions come down hard on those who use "circumvent" technological safeguards (like encryption) to infringe copyright, but it avoids penalizing legitimate uses, or attempting to regulate the development of new electronic technologies. Moreover, unlike H.R. 2281, H.R. 3048 does deal with a range of other issues which must be addressed if the time-tested balance of rights and privileges, which as been the source of so much success for the American information economy in the past, is to be preserved and maintained in the new digital environment.

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