Lehman Seeks to Revive Copyright Bill

The content providers and the telecom firms are sparring from Washington to Geneva, but there's no solution in sight

Patent commissioner Bruce Lehman is quietly trying to resuscitate Congress' copyright-reform bill, which has been stalled by an escalating dispute among rival industry groups.

However, Lehman's intervention "is definitely a step backward" for the online industry, said Brian Ek, a spokesman for Prodigy Inc., White Plains, N.Y.

Alongside a variety of telecommunications companies, Prodigy is a member of the Ad Hoc Copyright Coalition, which is locked in an argument with the companies that provide Internet content, such as software, music or news reports. The content companies want the telecommunications companies to police their networks to curb software piracy or other copyright violations. But the telecommunications companies are leery of any legislation that exposes them to expensive copyright-violation lawsuits.

In July, the telecommunications coalition extended the copyright dispute by asking President Bill Clinton to alter the U.S. stance at diplomatic negotiations intended to rewrite the international Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, last updated in 1971.

Lehman's intervention in the dispute followed a request from Rep. Carlos Moorhead, R-Calif., chairman of the intellectual property panel of the House Committee on the Judiciary, to find a solution. Moorhead, who will retire in November, is trying to win passage of HR 2441, which is intended to extend traditional copyright laws to cover the digital products.

By May, a majority of the industry representatives on a panel arranged by Moorhead's ally, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., had drafted a partial agreement. But several content providers hadn't signed on, dooming any prospect of passing the bill in 1996.

"We believe the Goodlatte language [will] be the starting point for future discussions," said Ek.

Instead, Lehman circulated a draft proposal that would saddle telecommunications companies with a greater risk of lawsuits, and require them to continuously monitor their networks for any copyright violations, said Ek. "Continued monitoring... is not potentially feasible."

Lehman's proposal "is not a compromise.... It is a move back" toward the position held by the content companies, said Ek.

Lehman's press secretary, Lisa-Joy Zgorski, declined to comment on Lehman's new proposal. "Anything I would say would hamper the process," she said. However, she said, "We're happy to help facilitate constructive negotiations on this issue."

But even if Lehman brokers a new compromise, Congress won't have enough time to complete work on a copyright bill before it breaks in October for the elections, said industry officials.

Instead, Lehman's proposal or any agreement will likely be caught up in a congressional debate over the update to the 1971 international Berne Convention on copyrights. The update is intended to give music, software and other digital property the same copyright protection that has long been given to literature.

In December, industry and government officials hope to finalize an agreement among the more than 100 member nations in the Berne Convention. Once finalized, the agreement must be debated by the Congress and made into law.

However, Prodigy and the other members of the Ad-Hoc Copyright Coalition asked Clinton in July to withhold Lehman-backed digital copyright proposals from the Berne convention, saying they could have a "potentially deleterious impact... on the development of our information infrastructure."

In response, content providers dubbed the Creative Incentive Coalition, wrote to Clinton asking that he reject the ad-hoc group plea. "While disengagement from the international copyright arena might suit the interest of the Ad-Hoc Copyright Coalition, it would be intolerable to those of us whose commitment to disseminate new and valuable content on the information superhighway hinges on strong copyright protection," said the coalition's letter.

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