Congress Revisits the Copyright Act

A House subcommittee considers changes to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Courts now famous Betamax decision. On January 17, 1984, the Court ruled that Sonys Betamax VCR was perfectly legal.

The majority opinion, written by Justice John Paul Stevens, said that although you could, in theory, use the device to record copyrighted television shows and movies and then sell them for profit, most consumers merely used their VCRs for "time-shifting," recording their favorite shows for viewing at a later time. Americans, the court decided, should be allowed this sort of "fair use."

Yet, as we celebrate this anniversary, we dont enjoy the same freedoms with television shows and movies purchased on DVD. Its illegal to make copies of any DVD—even if youre just making backup copies for your own personal use. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a law passed in 1998, prohibits anyone from circumventing "copyright protection systems" used by digital media, and today, all DVDs are equipped with such protection.

"The DMCA is not really a copyright statute. Its an access control statute," says Richard Horning, an intellectual-property attorney and partner with the Silicon Valley law firm Tomlinson Zisko LLP in Palo Alto, Calif. "It doesnt allow any of the classic uses of copyrighted material that the public has come to appreciate and that have been part of the publics rights under traditional copyright law."

Last week, however, a House subcommittee convened to discuss amendments to the DMCA. Sponsored by Rick Boucher, D-Va., and John Doolittle, R-Calif., the amendments would apply traditional "fair use" standards to digital media. Just as you can legally tape a television show for personal reasons, the proposed Digital Media Consumers Rights Act (DMCRA) would let you circumvent the copy-protection controls on a DVD for personal reasons.

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