Tech-heavy coalition supports fair-use legislation

Support grows to allow making a limited number of copies of restricted products

WASHINGTON - A group of technology vendors, consumer rights groups and Internet service providers (ISPs) have banded together to support 18-month-old U.S. House legislation that would allow consumers to make personal copies of copyrighted digital products, including movies and music.

The Personal Technology Freedom Coalition on Tuesday kicked off its efforts to get the Digital Media Consumers' Rights Act, introduced in January 2003, through Congress. The legislation, sponsored by Representative Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat, would allow consumers to break copy controls to do such things as make personal copies of compact discs or movies. Supporters of the bill say it's necessary to protect consumers' so-called fair-use rights to make personal copies, which the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) curtails.

"We don't think it's illegal to buy CDs and videos and make a small number of copies for personal use," said Representative Joe Barton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "Under the DMCA ... it's become virtually impossible to do that. We're not trying to make it open season for piracy or anything like that."

The bill, which would roll back some of the DMCA's prohibitions against circumventing copy-control technologies, improved its chance of passage when Barton, a Texas Republican, was named chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in February.

Barton, a co-sponsor of the Boucher bill, said he plans to schedule a session for the committee to consider and amend the legislation by July, then move the bill to the House floor. Even though the bill has gone nowhere in a year and a half and faces tough opposition from some lawmakers and entertainment companies, Boucher and Barton said they believed the bill could move through the House this year.

The Personal Technology Freedom Coalition kicked off Tuesday with a Capitol Hill press conference and support from more than two dozen organizations and companies. Supporters ranged from the United States Student Association and Consumers Union to tech giants Intel Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Gateway Inc. Four major telecommunications carriers and ISPs, including Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp., also joined the coalition.

The coalition launched on the same day that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) announced 482 new lawsuits, including 206 in Washington, D.C., against alleged song uploaders using peer-to-peer services to trade music. The RIAA and the Motion Picture Association of America, which have led the fight against digital piracy, didn't immediately respond to requests for comments about the new coalition.

Speakers at the kick-off press conference argued the DMCA's anticircumvention provisions are stifling technology innovation. Rep. John Doolittle, a California Republican, held up an Apple Computer Inc. iPod and said technologies such as the iPod don't make sense if consumers aren't allowed to copy their CDs to the iPod.

Some companies are using the DMCA to stifle research into security holes, added Ed Black, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association. "It is an attempt to use intellectual property not really to protect intellectual property, but to block competition," he said.

Boucher's bill does not spell out how many personal copies constitute fair use and how many add up to a copyright violation. Before the DMCA, courts determined when an activity was piracy and when it was fair use, and the bill would allow the court review to continue, Boucher said.

Asked how many copies are allowed under fair use, Mark Cooper, research director of the Consumer Federation of America, said the DMCA doesn't allow consumers to circumvent copy controls to make one copy. People who make 1,000 copies of a copyrighted work and sell it should go to jail, but people who make less than 50 copies should be safe from the threat of lawsuits or prosecution, Cooper said.

"The gray area is pretty small with respect to piracy," Cooper said.