Panel to Review Bill That Would Ban Some Web Devices


As one of the first major record labels to embrace cyberspace--by releasing an Aerosmith song online in 1994 and securing an Internet domain name that same year--Geffen Records believed the Web held much promise for its artists.

But four years later, after discovering dozens of Web sites offering hundreds of songs by Geffen artists for free downloading, the company has joined an industry movement to bolster copyright protection for artists in the digital age.

The campaign to protect intellectual property online is expected to take a significant step forward today when the Senate Judiciary Committee takes up a controversial copyright reform bill that bans devices aimed at electronically circumventing copy-protection technology. The measure also shields online providers like America Online Inc. from broad liability for carrying stolen material on their networks.


The Senate bill and a companion measure pending in the full House of Representatives were introduced to implement two World Intellectual Property Organization treaties signed in December 1996. Those treaties established international recognition of copyrights for digitally produced material such as movies and software.

But opponents say the nearly identical measures are far more restrictive than the treaties require. The bills would for the first time criminalize the manufacture or use of a whole class of electronic devices that could be used to freely download protected, copyrighted material, but may also have legitimate uses for commercial software development.

The provisions banning such devices are “way too broad; it will stifle technology manufacturers who will be reluctant to bring any type of product to the market that may have some [potentially illegal] component in it,” said Gary Klein, vice president of legal affairs for the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Assn. in Arlington, Va.

And Ed Black, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Assn. in Washington, D.C., said that although broader protection of online providers was a welcome compromise, the legislation still could expose the operators of some Internet search engines to increased copyright liability simply because they use humans instead of computers to categorize new Web sites.

That’s because under the copyright bills human searchers might be deemed to have notice of copyright violators because they visually inspect Web pages. But search engines that rely on computers could contend they didn’t know there was pirated material on their computers.

Consideration of copyright reform comes as lawmakers around the world have been scrambling to construct new legal frameworks that address intellectual property issues raised by the rapid growth of the Internet.

Copyright reform is seen by its proponents as a linchpin of a massive effort led by the entertainment, pharmaceutical and software industries to battle the theft of intellectual property in an age where pirates with computers can copy and transmit works around the globe with the click of a computer mouse.

Trading music and software over the Internet has become a particularly popular pastime among college students, who are often armed with speedy on-campus Internet connections and extensive music and software collections culled from friends.

Jim Griffin, director of technology at Geffen Records, said many Internet pirates he has interviewed suggest that their music giveaway promotes the artist. “But they could at least ask for our permission,” Griffin fumed. “If you want to borrow your neighbor’s car, you have to ask. Otherwise, it’s grand theft auto.”

In response, both the Software Publishers Assn. and the Recording Industry Assn. of America here have set up sophisticated computers and hired staff to prowl the Internet 24 hours a day in search of copyright violators.

But officials say they find themselves battling Web sites that have become so mainstream that they boast a bevy of advertisers, fancy graphics and search engines that rival big corporate sites.