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Tougher copyright law?

Starting the legislative ball rolling, a House Judiciary subcommittee held its initial hearing today on HR 4279, a bill to crack down further on counterfeit and pirated goods. Subcommittee chairman Howard Berman (D-North Hollywood) used the occasion to fire a warning shot across the bow of critics who say copyright law is already too stringent. The not-too-subtle message to tech advocates who've railed against the bill: you're not the only ones who want changes.

In his opening remarks (download it here) at the hearing, Berman suggested that the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act may need to be changed to make it less forgiving of Internet service providers, educational institutions and other "intermediaries" online. The law is widely viewed to have been a win for content owners and a loss for tech and consumer-electronics companies; for example, the anti-circumvention provisions let content owners block some legal forms of copying, not to mention eliminating the secondary market for digital goods. Nevertheless, Berman called for the subcommittee to revisit the immunity that the DMCA provides ISPs and others who transmit or host infringing material for their customers. He added, "We should also examine whether filtering technologies have advanced enough today that there should be some obligation to adopt them where appropriate." The entertainment industry has urged Congress and the courts to require filters on file-sharing software and user-generated content sites, such as YouTube and MySpace. But opponents have argued that such a technology mandate would deter innovative companies from developing more effective responses to the problem.

It wasn't clear whether Berman would seek to use HR 4279, which he co-sponsored, as the vehicle for such changes. He also extended an olive branch to Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), a longtime critic of the anti-circumvention provisions' corrosive effect on fair use, saying he was open to discussing those provisions and the existing procedures for carving out new fair-use exceptions. Meanwhile, the witness sent by the Justice Department — Deputy Assistant Attorney General Sigal P. Mandelker of the criminal division — took an even harder line than Berman. Mandelker called for amendments that would criminalize some types of attempted copyright infringement and make federal investigations into criminal counterfeiting or piracy eligible for court-ordered wiretaps. 


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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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