Fair Use Talks Face November Deadline

Libraries and copyright owners agree on minor issues, but spar over major questions

Government officials hope to broker a November agreement between publishers and librarians that could ease progress of a 1997 digital copyright law intended to boost online commerce.

The Conference on Fair Use, dubbed ConFU, is scheduled to hold its final meeting Nov. 25, and is intended to lay out rules for the no-cost use of copyrighted products, such as books, by libraries, researchers and authors.

"All the fighting's been done.... [The meeting is] to bless the final draft," said Peter Fowler, an attorney at the Patent and Trademark Office. Fowler is drafting the agreement, which will be reviewed at the November meeting, more than two years after negotiations began in September 1994.

But there is still disagreement between industry and library officials over libraries' sharing of copyrighted products, he said. "That's where the dispute is," he said.

The dispute has effectively barred any agreement on how libraries can electronically share digital products, such as books, said Mary Jackson, an advisor to the Washington-based Association of Research Libraries. "It is premature to develop guidelines.... We don't know how the [technical and legal] environment will turn out," she said.

The ConFU negotiations have developed draft plans for the fair use of visual-image archiving, distance learning, and educational multimedia technology, said Fowler.

But disputes over the final legal language may stymie any agreement, said Jackson.

If there is no agreement, the libraries and copyright-owners will battle it in Congress and the courts, said one lobbyist for the copyright owners.

If completed, the ConFU agreement will complement a recently approved agreement between education officials and publishers of books, software, films and music. The Sept. 27 agreement grants teachers and students the right to combine movie clips, snippets of songs and portions of books into computerized multimedia products, without having to seek approval from copyright owners. The guidelines are needed because "it's very hard to exploit new technologies if everyone is afraid to use them," because of expensive copyright-violation lawsuits, said Bruce Lehman, the commissioner of patents and trademarks.

But now "the courts will consult these guidelines and basically abide by them" during any copyright-infringement lawsuits, he said.

The guidelines "obviously help the [stalled] bill because they help take away controversy," said Lehman.

However, the educational guidelines are too restrictive, said Jackson.

Although the multimedia agreement does little to advance the digital copyright bill, any agreement between the librarians and the copyright owners would nudge forward the copyright bill, said one congressional staff member.

This year, the copyright bill was derailed primarily copyright owners, telecommunications firms and online service providers could not agree on a plan to minimize the online theft of digital movies, data and books or software.

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