By Grant Gross, IDG News Service
The U.S. Congress should consider a “safe harbor” from legal action for
consumers using works protected by copyright as it launches a long-term
effort to revamp copyright law, some advocates said Thursday.
Consumers should be protected from lawsuits when they use digital works
they’ve legally purchased, Jule Sigall, assistant general counsel for
copyright at Microsoft, told U.S. lawmakers.
“The lack of clarity around reasonable and ordinary personal use has
contributed to the declining public reputation of copyright and a lack
of respect for the law among some consumers,” he told the intellectual
property subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary
Committee. “Too often consumers view copyright as an impediment to their
enjoyment of creative content they have paid for and a deterrent to
innovation in new products and services.”
Copyright holders sometimes used ambiguities in copyright law to threaten consumers, he added.
Just as Congress carved out a safe harbor for websites and other online
businesses in the 15-year-old Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it
should consider legal protections to provide “certainty that the
ordinary and reasonable personal use of legitimately purchased content
will be enabled, not stifled, by copyright,” Sigall said. “I’m not
talking about piracy here, but situations in which consumers who have
legitimately purchased content are confronted and confused by assertions
that actions enabling the enjoyment of that content are somehow
A safe harbor for consumers should be a top priority for Congress, added
Pam Samuelson, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley
Law School. She also called on lawmakers to look for new ways that
creators can easily register their works.
Sigall also called for Congress to consider a new generation of
creators, including one-person software development firms, as it looks
to rewrite copyright law. The Internet has enabled creators who “often
operate independent of established publishers, distributors and
collective organizations,” he said. “Often when these authors look to
copyright and how it might help them develop and market their works,
they are mystified by a system built for traditional modes of
distribution, and not the new channels.”
Thursday’s hearing was the first in what promises to be a long process in the committee
to look at rewriting copyright law for the digital age. Aside from the
DMCA, the last major revision of U.S. copyright law was in 1976, and
witnesses told the subcommittee the law isn’t well adapted to modern
uses of material protected by copyright.
While witnesses urged that discussions about changes to copyright law be
civil, there was clear disagreement about the direction a copyright
overhaul should take.
A 2010 report from the Copyright Principles Project,
made up of copyright experts, seemed to focus more on the needs of
users than to the “enforcement needs of authors and other copyright
owners,” said Jon Baumgarten, a former general counsel of the U.S.
Much of the current discussion about copyright reform seems to head in
the same direction, Baumgarten added. “The copyright debates today and
search for changes are too often driven by those enthused by the promise
of new technology … that anything standing in the way is to be simply
tossed aside in favor of permitting it to happen,” he said.
Some subcommittee members said they were concerned that copyright protections could get watered down with a rewrite of the law.
“It seems in the past few years there has been a shift in the public
discourse about copyright away from the people who actually devote their
talent to create works for the benefit of society, and those who invest
in them, toward the users of works and the financial interests of those
companies eager to commercially exploit them,” said Representative Mel
Watt, a North Carolina Democrat. “Free speech does not mean free stuff.”