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The Continued Legal Assault on Fair Use

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Anush Yegyazarian, PC World editor, looks at the recent history of copyright law and doesn’t like what she sees. I would say her view and mine are nearly identical:

    while U.S. courts and Congress have done a lot to help copyright owners defend their rights, they have done comparatively little to help users maintain theirs.

    The Digital Media Consumers’ Rights Act, H.R. 107, proposed in January 2003 by Representative Rick Boucher (D-Virginia), is one of the few bills that would help consumers get back their fair-use rights–which were practically if not explicitly erased by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. But H.R. 107 has gone nowhere in the 18 months since its introduction. In late June, the bill was reintroduced and its Congressional backers have mustered more computer industry support. But with entertainment companies bitterly opposed, there’s no guarantee it will get anywhere this time around.

    Legislation and court rulings favorable to copyright holders, however, have not had that problem.

    More Protection for Copyright Holders
    Consider two pieces of legislation in the works: One has already passed in the Senate, less than three months after introduction; the other, which is far more troubling, has just been introduced. Both are championed by a bipartisan group of fairly powerful politicians led by Senate Judiciary committee leader Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Patrick Leahy (Vermont).

    What would these bills do?

    The first, the Protecting Intellectual Rights Against Theft and Expropriation Act of 2004 (S. 2237, affectionately known as the Pirate Act), would give the Justice Department the power to bring civil lawsuits–which have a lower burden of proof than criminal ones–against suspected copyright violators. And this would relieve poor little entertainment companies of the burden of paying their own legal costs: Taxpayers will do it for them.

    The second bill, S. 2560, appears to target those who “intentionally induce” copyright violations by others–meaning unfiltered peer-to-peer networks, at the moment.

    What the Heck Does “Intentionally Induce” Mean?
    Primarily sponsored by Hatch, S. 2560 would let copyright owners sue those who indirectly, but intentionally, help cause or induce copyright violations.

    Prosecuting those who intentionally induce a crime is an accepted legal concept. Legally speaking, to “induce” implies to essentially aid, encourage, or order someone to perform a criminal act by a variety of means, including coercion, enticement, trickery, and the like. Hatch would bring this legal concept into the realm of civil copyright law. His description of the bill likens it to making sure the courts are able to go after the P2P Fagins of the world, and not be limited to the Oliver Twists (i.e., P2P users) who are currently popular targets of Recording Industry Association of America lawsuits–more than 3000 filed to date, and counting.

    Hatch and the bill’s other sponsors claim that S. 2560, a comparatively short amendment to the copyright code, won’t deter technical innovation, restrict copying technologies in general (copiers, VCRs, and the like), or affect fair-use rights.

    Other observers, however, see it differently.

    Nasty Consequences
    Jessica Litman, a law professor at Michigan’s Wayne State University, has specialized in copyright law and Internet law for more than 20 years; she is also the author of Digital Copyright: Protecting Intellectual Property on the Internet (2000, Prometheus Books, 800/421-0351). In Litman’s view, the language in Hatch’s bill is incredibly broad: Had it been in existence in the early 1980s, it might have killed off VCRs.

    In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that VCRs were legal because although they could lead to copyright violations, they also had other substantial uses (like time shifting) that did not infringe copyright law. Moreover, although Sony and other VCR makers knew that it was generally possible to use the devices to infringe copyright protections, that general knowledge alone wasn’t enough to make VCR vendors themselves guilty of copyright violations. Nor could vendors be held liable for what consumers ultimately did with their products.

    In the Sony VCR case, the Supreme Court also specifically stated that Sony did not act to intentionally induce copyright violations when it introduced the machines. Because of that, Hatch says his bill won’t affect devices like VCRs or similar copying technologies.

    But how do you actually define intentional inducement? Hatch’s bill tries to be clear by using a lot of synonyms for “induce.” It also helpfully says that intent can be determined by a reasonable person looking at the actions of and information available to the alleged infringer, including whether the supposed inducing activity (read: product) relies on copyright infringement for its “commercial viability.”

    Under this standard, would Sony’s VCR have stood the test? What about DVD or CD burners? Or MP3 players–which certainly faced numerous court challenges when first introduced? How about photocopying machines, for that matter?

    ….Hatch’s new bill doesn’t specifically address how to evaluate a technology that can help infringe copyright while still having other, substantial uses that don’t. But in his remarks introducing the bill to the Senate, he says that existing laws dealing with secondary liability–such as intentionally inducing a copyright violation–do not make exceptions for substantial noncriminal uses. The implication seems to be that such legitimate uses should not be a consideration in copyright infringement cases either.

    I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me this reasoning would have made the Supreme Court’s 1984 VCR ruling extremely unlikely

    ….I’m sure the Pirate Act will save entertainment companies lots of money if it becomes law; I’m less sure what it will do to my tax bill next year. It doesn’t seem to me that entertainment companies are hurting for legal recourse, or that the recourse they already have is failing to stop those they see as copyright violators, like the old Napster, vendors of copying programs like 321’s, or individual users. But perhaps I’m missing something.

    While adding to my yearly taxes, Congress continues to eagerly act on behalf of copyright holders, and it drags its heels when it comes to restoring the balance between copyright holders’ rights and consumers’ fair-use rights that the DMCA threw out of whack.

    ….Our legislators need to remember that copyright laws exist because we want progress in both science and arts. According to Litman, we “bribe” creators into creating with exclusive (but not total) copyrights that let them profit from their creations and the distribution of those creations for a specific period of time.

    That limit on copyright protection is in the Constitution because this progress benefits society as a whole–we, the people, as it were. The concept of fair use exists in copyright law because Congress did, once upon a time, acknowledge that copyright is not absolute: It has limitations, which directly contribute to the ultimate goal of benefit to the public.

    That benefit may be manifest indirectly, by teachers having the right to reproduce works in part or discuss technologies in order to teach them; through free access to information and copyrighted works at libraries; or even (gasp) by allowing occasional copies for personal use of something you’ve already paid for, which helps you enjoy and appreciate it, and perhaps even be inspired by it.

    The benefits of copyright law are easily grasped in its more direct expression: new music, movies, or other art for us to enjoy, which is what many of the proposed laws aim for, including Hatch’s.

    But it seems to me that any law that limits progress by protecting existing copyright holders at the potential expense of innovation (on the part of future copyright and patent holders) goes against the whole point of copyright.

    We can do better, and we should.

All of this is going on because legislators find it much easier to understand the financial support and ownership claims of the copyright industry than they do the more amorphous but much more broad-based claims of the public. That is why we must keep speaking out and supporting organizations like the EFF and alternative copyright plans like Creative Commons.

Check out the Mediatrips project we linked to yesterday.

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About Eric Olsen

  • Mac Diva

    I am a strong supporter of copyright law. The person who did the actual research, writing and sweating out finding a publisher (a humdinger for most writers of books) deserves the credit, not the people who basically steal his or her material. The rise of the Internet has made such theft even more of a problem. For example, if one were to apply copyright law to Blogcritics, at least half of the material would be gone in a flash. Too many participants rely on taking material beyond fair use from other media and attaching their names to it. The practice is spreading because it is rewarded on the Leader Board. Most people think twice about taking that new CD they want but can’t afford in the music store. However, they don’t apply the same standard to stealing articles in violation of fair use and often without atrribution. They should.

  • Mac Diva

    Though the commenters are using the ‘inducement’ part of S. 2560 in regard to electronic media and peer-to-peer music sharing, I think it could also apply to web sites. If someone is encouraging others to violate copyright law to attract traffic to his site, that is a form of inducement. There are fine sites that make a point of not doing that, paying for copyrighted material. However, others break the law regularly.

    Most of the defenses of electronic media do not apply to web sites, however. Since the poster or site owner never owned the material taken it is not space shifting. Furthermore, the main use of the material, to attract traffic to the site and generate profits for its owner, is not one that serves public policy.

    The only offensive part of the proposed legislation I see is shifting the cost of litigation to the government. Copyright holders should pay that cost themselves. A pooling of resources by media groups, publishers, advocates like PEN, etc., can limit the expense.

  • Jim Carruthers

    Okay, right here, right now, we’re not “users”, we’re the public, the body public which grants you screwheads the limited rights you claim to excise from our body. Our word is law, not your weak bleatings, you bastards of weak conception.

    We are the public, you owe us. There are no if, ands or buts, you ow us, the public. Lick our boots before we kick you in the ass.