This was originally posted to on 17-May-1998, in reply to an article about the Digital Millenium Copyright Act which the US Senate had recently approved.

More Rights for Copyright Owners, Less for Users

What this bill really does is to give copyright owners new, almost unlimited rights to control the ways in which their works are used, while at the same time taking away many of the rights that consumers used to have.

In the past, if I bought a software package, I didn't own the actual program, but I had fairly clear rights to use it on one computer at any time and in any way I wanted. If I bought an audio CD, I didn't own the music, but I could listen to it whenever I wanted (with only some small exceptions for public performance). If I wanted to modfiy the software (or the music), I was free to do so.

For instance, if I was ambitious I could add a new feature to the software, or fix a bug myself. I could run the music through filtering software to clean up noise, or just to make it sound different. As long as I didn't infringe the copyright by offering copies to others, I could basically do whatever I wanted to it.

But this new bill will allow the copyright owners to make any arbitrary restrictions they want on the software (or music, or video, or whatever), and call it a copyright protection device. I will not be allowed to even attempt to circumvent these restrictions, no matter how arbitrary or silly they are.

For example, a software publisher could supply a program with a dongle. It so happens that my Libretto portable computer does not have any built-in serial or parallel ports for a dongle, unless I plug it into a docking station. There is a program I use now that requires a dongle, and I have a third party program that eliminates the need for the dongle. I don't use this to defraud the publisher; I use it because the software would not be usable on my computer without it. But under the new bill, it would be illegal for the third party to sell me their program, or even to reverse engineer the dongle and write the program in the first place.

Now let's suppose that the publisher doesn't want me to use the software on Tuesdays. Under current law, the only way he can do that is to make me sign a license agreement. Under the new law, he can simply make that part of his copyright protection system (be it a dongle or whatever), and he now has the force of law on his arbitary and silly restriction.

Of course, nothing prevents the publisher from attempting to impose such a restriction today. He can build a dongle that does exactly that. But the key difference is that unless he gets me to sign a license agreement, it is entirely lawful for me to figure out how to circumvent the restriction.

In essence, this bill gives vast new powers to copyright owners (and takes them away from consumers), far beyond what the Constitution authorized in Article I Section 8 Clause 8: "to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;"

Bear in mind that this clause of the Constitution and ratified treaties (including WIPO) are the only authorization that the government has for implementing copyrights at all. But this bill goes way beyond what WIPO required.

The copyright law as it exists today (before this bill is signed into law) does an adequate job of protecting copyrights. While it is reasonable to make some minor changes to bring the US into compliance with WIPO, the real point of the bill is greed. If you'll notice, the Constitution didn't say "to guarantee that Authors and Inventors squeeze every possible dollar out of consumers," yet that is basically what this bill is about. It follows the Golden Rule of Arts and Sciences: He Who Has the Gold, Makes the Rules.

It's too late to call your senators on this one, but please let your representatives know what you think about it.

Update: On 28-OCT-1998, the President signed the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. It is now U.S. Public Law 105-304.

For More Information

Copyright Extension

Yet another recent encroachment of our rights is the "Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act", padded in 1998. For more information:
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Last updated January 15, 2005

Copyright 1998, 1999, 2002, 2005 Eric Smith

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