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US Congress Wrestling Copyright Law
July 12, 2004
Chuck Solitude
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The need for evolution in copyright law, triggered by the digital era, has caused a tug-of-war between intellectual property based industries and consumers. Pulling for the copyright team are the entertainment industries, in particular the RIAA and the MPAA. On the competing team are the consumers, being lead by the EFF and P2P United.

On initial inspection, it appears the industry has taken the advantage. The Induce Act, sponsored by the notorious Hatch, will cripple American P2P applications as we know them. The industry also won the hearts and minds of Senate leaders, who have passed the Pirate Act. Consumer groups and legal analysts alike have spoken against the Act, which will stifle innovation and waste precious government resources on capturing music lovers sharing mp3 files. More information and a chance to protest can be found at “Sink the Pirate Act.”

But the Senate is not completely anti-consumer. The opposing team is receiving backing from Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), who have introduced legislation they believe would ensure the American public's access to the nation's intellectual and artistic heritage.

The Public Domain Enhancement Act would repeal recent legislation which extended the lifetime of copyrights from 75 to 95 years after the author of a work dies. Instead, owners of copyrighted works -- such as songs, books and software – would have to pay a $1 fee to maintain their copyrights once 50 years have transpired from the work's original publication. If owners failed to pay the fee, the work would enter the public domain, and the public would be free to reproduce, republish or alter it.

It is still a far cry from the original 14 year lifetime of copyrights, but it helps bring a better balance between profiting from creativity and access to creative works.

An interesting comparison can be made with the pharmaceutical companies, who invest a vast amount of money and energy in developing new products, yet can receive a maximum patent period of 20 years.

So why does the music industry get special treatment? After all, copyright is copyright.

Perhaps on closer inspection, the Public Domain Enhancement Act is too little and only half hearted in comparison with the sweeping statements made by legislators on the industry team.

Is the ongoing battle in Congress the evolution of consumer rights in the digital environment? In light of the PIRATE and INDUCE Acts, it seems clear that consumer rights are taking second place to those of the industry.

Amidst all the new legislation, consumers ponder what legitimate use of their own computer is. In an election year, these consumers need to remember what President Lincoln said -- “Of the people, by the people, and for the people, ..."

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