Industry Plans Cyberproperty Law

At the request of Congress, industry executives are drawing up proposals for a law to protect Internet property rights

P> Backed by the House Judiciary Committee, a panel of 15 industry executives is hammering out a set of rules to guard intellectual property in cyberspace.

The working group is chaired by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who recently added two new members to represent the interests of libraries and universities.

But cyberspace libertarians and consumers have been frozen out. 'The various industry players seem to be well-represented, but the public at large... doesn't have a seat at the table," said Brad Stillman, counsel for the Washington-based Consumer Federation of America.

Goodlatte and other members of Congress, such as Rep. Carlos Moorhead, R-Calif., the retiring chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, hope to pass the new law by the end of the year, but a packed congressional calendar, deep industry disagreements and the impending presidential election might delay agreement until 1997.

The group was formed to settle a growing dispute between major copyright holders -- software developers, movie studios, book publishers -- and the on-line industry, including Internet providers.

The copyright holders want a new copyright-protection law to force the on-line industry to protect copyrights from such crimes as software piracy. But on-line industry executives do not want to be intellectual property cops, nor do they want to be entangled in various lawsuits whenever software is illegally copied via their on-line networks.

To resolve the issue, "each [side] will have to take some responsibility on themselves," said Mitchell Glazier, who works for Goodlatte in the intellectual property panel of the House Committee on the Judiciary.

A number of compromise suggestions have been raised so far:

The law could be changed to allow on-line companies immediately to cut off Internet sites identified as copyright violators by the property holders. Any disagreements could be argued in court or before an arbitrator, but copyright holders need the "quick kill [because] one hour [of copying] can destroy your business," said Glazier. This proposal has attracted broad support within the working group, he said.

Internet companies could copy the titles of Internet items to a central database, which copyright holders could access to review for possible copyright violations.

Congress could create a "virtual magistrate" who would quickly resolve disputes over intellectual property rights, without first resorting to expensive legal battles.

Once the working group completes its recommendations, they will be reviewed by representatives and their staffs, who will write the House version of the cyberspace property rights law, said Glazier. The Senate is expected to begin hearings on the issue later this month.

Goodlatte's working group includes 15 representatives from industry, including America Online Inc., Vienna, Va.; Bell Atlantic Corp., Philadelphia; Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash.; Time Warner Inc., New York; and the U.S. Telephone Association, Washington. Two seats were added for representatives from the libraries and from the nation's universities.

But Eisgrau and others would like the working group to address other issues, including "fair use" -- how much freedom do libraries and citizens have to share, view or use pieces of intellectual property before they are required to pay fees. When these issues are added to the copyright holder vs. on-line industry debate, "it adds up, potentially, to gridlock," he said.

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