Copyright Law Needs Broad Digital Overhaul, Official Tells Congress

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-03-20 Print this article Print

The real problem with today’s copyright laws, as Pallante noted, is that they’re rooted in the past. Today’s rules on content apply to things that are printed, such as books, or things that are recorded, such as tapes and vinyl records. They are applied to digital content only with difficulty. Worse, the line between owning something that contains content (a book, for example) and licensing copyrighted material such as is done with software, has created a world when many things are licensed but few things are owned.

This means that you can own a book and keep it forever in your personal library. But if you buy a Kindle book, Amazon can simply remove it from your device if it decides there’s a problem with the licensing—a situation that has already occurred. So while you can take your book to a used bookstore and resell it, you can’t resell a Kindle book.

Likewise, you can own a vinyl record, but at least in theory you don’t own the music on a CD. You only own the plastic that comprises the CD, but the music publisher owns the music itself. As a practical matter, this is hard to enforce with compact discs, since you can play any CD on any CD player. But with the advent of DVDs, this has changed. Now the copyright holder can define where you can play the movie on your DVD, and if you try to play it somewhere it wasn’t intended, the copyright holder can prevent it.

As a result the concept of copyrights becomes more of a mess as it moves through time. Pallante said that the law needs to be changed so that it’s broad in principle and the details are specified by rulemaking (sort of like what happens at the Federal Communications Commission’s regulatory process), so that the rules can change as the situation changes.

Unfortunately, there would need to be changes in more than just the copyright laws. As one of the questioners pointed out in the hearing, the reason for the three-year exception rule handled by the Librarian of Congress that caught up cell phone unlocking is rooted in a South Korean trade agreement that Congress can’t change without renegotiating the treaty.

Worse, the copyright rules are chock full of rules like that which create unintended consequences that frustrate people and technological progress. Maybe a new copyright law will help, but maybe the South Koreans would have to approve it first.


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