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May 12, 2004
Is Congress Ready for DMCA Reform?
The burning question of the day: How did the hearings on the Digital Media Consumers' Rights Act (DMCRA) go? More specifically, to what degree does Congress appear willing to consider the public's side of the copyright equation?
The first report from the hearing seems to tell a variation of the same old story: advocates for the public interest cried "harm," the content industry responded with "theft," and progress got reacquainted with impasse. Closer inspection, however, reveals a tiny crack in the wall: Washington lobbyist and former congressman Allan Swift openly admitted to recording songs as gifts for friends -- "mixed tape" copying of the sort we can all still do using audio cassettes, only (gulp) using digital media. "I never made a straight duplicate of a record for anyone," said Swift. "I have never charged a person a penny. I am, like other American consumers, a profit center for these businesses. It's about time they treated us with a little respect."
Now, a second crack has splintered off from the first: Fred von Lohmann reports that the DMCRA has the critical support of Congressman Joe Barton (R-TX), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. During the lunch reccess, Congressman Barton privately announced that he "intends to see the bill marked up (a prerequisite to approval), passed by the subcommittee, passed by the full committee, passed by the full House of Representatives, and ultimately signed into law by the President. This year."
And the good news doesn't stop there. According to Fred, subcommittee members "repeatedly asked why it should be illegal to make a single back-up copy of a DVD. They asked why it should be illegal to edit a DVD you own to remove 'smut.' They asked whether this impasse was the product of the entertainment industry's failure to deploy new business models. And Rep. Davis went so far as to ask Larry Lessig whether we should be thinking about alternative systems that would compensate rightsholders without insisting on digital lockdown or mass prosecutions."
But as Fred points out, even with Congressman Barton's support and a number of sympathetic ears in Congress, this one remains a tough row to hoe. And if the DMCRA continues to move through the legislative process, there are other challenges farther on down the road. More than anything else, then, what this small step forward underscores is the need to urge Congress to take the next one.
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