March 8, 2007

Gov’t May Relax Copyright Law

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On Feb. 27, Reps. Rick Boucher (D-V.A.), Zoe Lofgren (D-C.A.) and John Doolittle (R-C.A.) introduced a new bill making it easier for scholars to access copyrighted material without impeding on copyright laws. The Freedom and Innovation Revitalizing U.S. Entrepreneurship Act of 2007, also referred to as The Fair Use Act, will limit the amount of control that content owners are granted by copyright laws over their work.

The Act, which is supported by the American Library Association and the American Association of Law Libraries, “is intended to promote innovation, encourage the introduction of new technology, enhance library preservation efforts and protect the fair use rights of consumers,” Boucher said upon introducing the new act to Congress.

The Fair Use Act will amend the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, which was created to prevent the theft of copyrighted material, specifically music, movies and literature, by means of electronic duplication. At a time when many universities, including Cornell, are being censured for their use of electronic course materials on faculty and departmental web pages in class and on course management websites like Blackboard, the Fair Use Act will assist people in academia in their use of copyrighted material for educational or library purposes.

“Copyright laws exist to enable authors and publishers to earn a fair return for their work and the risks they have taken,” said Prof. William Kennedy, comparative literature. “It really comes down to fair wage, and how much will be compromised by reproduction.”

In September 2006, after a copyright infringement scare, Cornell University and the Association of American Publishers (AAP) announced a set of digital guidelines for the University. The guidelines enforce United States copyright laws and remind Cornellians of the consequences of infringement.

With the new Fair Use Act, however, librarians, professors and students will be able to bypass copyright protections on digital content in certain circumstances. The Act will protect consumers of these digital materials from suffering repercussions for copyright infringement when accessing a work of substantial public interest solely for purposes of criticism, comment, news reporting, scholarship, or research. The Act also guarantees legal protection for reproduction of copyrighted material for educational purposes by an instructor in a classroom or for preservation or archival by a library.

The most vocal organizations opposing) this bill are the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The movie and recording industries are extremely concerned about the repercussions that this bill will have on their attempts in recent years to prevent video and music pirating.

“The motion picture and recording industries call [The Fair Use Act] ‘a license to hack,’” said Peter Hirtle, Cornell University Library intellectual property officer.

Hirtle has even heard it called, by a lawyer from Disney, “the third rail of intellectual property.’” It is a concern, Hirtle said, that the terms of fair use will be abused to the detriment of the content owners.

The Fair Use Act, however, does not remove repercussions. Rather, its intention is to place the focus of digital copyright law on the intended use of copyrighted materials and to take the focus off of digital reproduction itself.

Yet, Sarah Yan ’09 believes that “students might abuse the privileges that The Fair Use Act will grant the public. It will be easy for students and faculty to blur the lines between fair use and personal enjoyment.”