US lawmakers plan sweeping review of copyright

A key U.S. lawmaker has unveiled plans for a comprehensive review of the laws surrounding copyright in the United States to determine whether they are still relevant in the digital age.

Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday that his committee will begin its review in the coming months. When the review is finished, the committee could propose revisions to the current copyright law to help it better apply to an era where almost every citizen has become a publisher.

“There is little doubt that our copyright system faces new challenges today,” he said, according to a transcript of remarks delivered at the Library of Congress. “The Internet has enabled copyright owners to make available their works to consumers around the world, but has also enabled others to do so without any compensation for copyright owners.”

America’s copyright laws have been occasionally updated to accommodate new technologies since the first Copyright Act was passed into law in 1790. But the quick pace of technological change has meant the current law, enacted in 1976, fails to directly address copyright and how it applies to technologies that are commonplace today.

“It is my belief that a wide review of our nation’s copyright laws and related enforcement mechanisms is timely,” said Goodlatte. “I am announcing today that the House Judiciary Committee will hold a comprehensive series of hearings on U.S. copyright law in the months ahead. The goal of these hearings will be to determine whether the laws are still working in the digital age.”

The review has been welcomed by groups representing both content creators and consumers, something easy to do when it’s still unclear in which direction the review will go.

“We welcome a public conversation about modernizing the copyright laws,” said Cary Sherman, chairman and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), in a statement. Sherman agreed the law needs to change to keep up with digital technology, but he called for any review to be balanced between the rights of content creators and consumers.

“We share the view that our laws must be modern, streamlined and ensure that all creators are paid a fair market rate for their work,” he said. “They must work more efficiently—not only for creators, but for users and service providers as well. At the same time, a right with no recourse is no right at all. Laws like the DMCA must work for creators too, to allow digital music services to flourish.”

Public Knowledge, a group that examines copyright issues from the consumer standpoint, also welcomed the review.

“We welcome the Chairman’s proposal to examine how best our copyright laws can, as the Constitution requires, promote the progress of science and the useful arts,” Sherwin Siy, the group’s vice president of Legal Affairs, said in a statement. “As such, we hope that Congress and the Copyright Office will work to balance the interests of artists with those of their audiences and the public in general, ensuring that the ultimate goal of the law is met in promoting innovation and creativity.”

Goodlatte’s announcement comes a month after Maria Pallante, the current U.S. registrar of copyrights, called for a review of the current copyright act.

Speaking at Columbia Law School on March 4, Pallante outlined a number of issues that she thinks should be examined. They include what constitutes an identical copy in the digital age, the balance between enforcement and free expression, and licensing. Later in March, she delivered the same message before the House Judiciary Committee.

“There’s a whole bunch of things that Ballante has proposed, and they run the gamut,” said Sina Khanifar, a digital rights activist and founder of FixtheDMCA.org. “I think she is very much looking for broad reforms across the base of copyright.”

Khanifar works on issues related to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), enacted in 1998 and the last major revision of copyright law in the United States. Several controversial sections of the DMCA have made it something of a rallying cry for those campaigning for a new copyright regime.

The controversial parts of the law include Section 1201, which makes it a crime to circumvent technological measures protecting copyrighted material.

Khanifar and others say the language is over broad for a provision that was intended to make cracking digital rights management technology a crime. The section has been cited in arguments for keeping consumers from circumventing any kind of software lock, including recently in cases over the unlocking of cellphones.

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