Consumer advocates asked Congress on Wednesday to amend a landmark 1998 copyright law to permit film buffs to make personal copies of DVD movies and other digital content for limited purposes. Hollywood studios and the music industry said that would lead to more piracy and lost sales.
Sponsors described the proposal as a consumers' rights bill for digital media that would allow consumers to bypass encryption locks built into DVD movies by Hollywood to prevent copying. Such encryption schemes are increasingly common in music and movies.
Supporters of the change complained the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act prohibits consumers from using specialized software to bypass such electronic locks, even when making copies of discs only for their own personal use.
Similar legislation was introduced during the last Congress but went nowhere.
A federal appeals court in February banned sales of popular DVD-copying software from a St. Louis company, 321 Studios Inc., but similar software continues to be distributed freely across the Internet by programmers.
Finding a balance
"We went way overboard as a Congress in enacting that (1998) legislation," Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., one of the authors of the consumer rights bill, said at a hearing Wednesday by the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection. "This bill represents the first tangible opportunity to redress those wrongs."
Lawrence Lessig, an expert on Internet law at Stanford University, said technology to break digital locks should be permitted when consumers make copies for legal purposes, such as making backup discs. Lessig called the bill "an extraordinarily important first step in restoring the balance in copyright law."
But movie and music executives warned that the proposal would strip their industries of important tools to limit piracy. The head of the Motion Picture Association of America, Jack Valenti, showed lawmakers a copy of the DVD mystery "Runaway Jury" he said was purchased on the black market in downtown Washington and produced using 321's disputed software. Valenti said the bill "legalizes hacking."
The chief executive for 321 Studios, Robert Moore, said his company expected to generate $100 million in sales until February's court decision banned its software. He said his company is now "on the brink of annihilation."
Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter, R-Idaho, said the bill would make theft more efficient. "Property is property," he said. "I don't care if you're talking about dirt in Idaho or somebody's creative genius. Theft is theft. I don't see the difference."
Some of the most unusual testimony came from Allan Swift, a Washington lobbyist and former Democratic congressman from Washington state who once served on the House committee. Swift, who describes himself as an interested citizen on the subject, said he routinely copies songs for friends from his collection of 3,000 music discs.
"I never made a straight duplicate of a record for anyone," Swift said. "I have never charged a person a penny. I am like other American consumers a profit center for these businesses. It's about time they treated us with a little respect."
But some lawmakers opposed to the bill complained that Swift plainly violated copyright laws. Swift said his copies were permitted under so-called "fair use" copyright provisions, which allow consumers to duplicate parts of copyrighted work for limited purposes, such as news reporting, criticism or scientific research.
"You're violating multiple copyrights when you do that," Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., told Swift. "You spend that time making copies that you're not willing to tell your friends to go spend their money to support that work?"
"I make a program and give it to a friend, and they're supposed to pay me for that?" Swift answered. "I give them a gift and they're supposed to pay?"
"A copyrighted work is not a gift," Bono replied.