The U.S. Congress should consider a "safe harbor" from legal action for consumers using works protected by copyright as it launches a long-term effort to revamp copyright law, some advocates said Thursday.
Consumers should be protected from lawsuits when they use digital works they've legally purchased, Jule Sigall, assistant general counsel for copyright at Microsoft, told U.S. lawmakers.
"The lack of clarity around reasonable and ordinary personal use has contributed to the declining public reputation of copyright and a lack of respect for the law among some consumers," he told the intellectual property subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee. "Too often consumers view copyright as an impediment to their enjoyment of creative content they have paid for and a deterrent to innovation in new products and services."
Copyright holders sometimes used ambiguities in copyright law to threaten consumers, he added.
Just as Congress carved out a safe harbor for websites and other online businesses in the 15-year-old Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it should consider legal protections to provide "certainty that the ordinary and reasonable personal use of legitimately purchased content will be enabled, not stifled, by copyright," Sigall said. "I'm not talking about piracy here, but situations in which consumers who have legitimately purchased content are confronted and confused by assertions that actions enabling the enjoyment of that content are somehow infringing."
A safe harbor for consumers should be a top priority for Congress, added Pam Samuelson, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley Law School. She also called on lawmakers to look for new ways that creators can easily register their works.
Sigall also called for Congress to consider a new generation of creators, including one-person software development firms, as it looks to rewrite copyright law. The Internet has enabled creators who "often operate independent of established publishers, distributors and collective organizations," he said. "Often when these authors look to copyright and how it might help them develop and market their works, they are mystified by a system built for traditional modes of distribution, and not the new channels."
Thursday's hearing was the first in what promises to be a long process in the committee to look at rewriting copyright law for the digital age. Aside from the DMCA, the last major revision of U.S. copyright law was in 1976, and witnesses told the subcommittee the law isn't well adapted to modern uses of material protected by copyright.
While witnesses urged that discussions about changes to copyright law be civil, there was clear disagreement about the direction a copyright overhaul should take.
A 2010 report from the Copyright Principles Project, made up of copyright experts, seemed to focus more on the needs of users than to the "enforcement needs of authors and other copyright owners," said Jon Baumgarten, a former general counsel of the U.S. Copyright Office.
Much of the current discussion about copyright reform seems to head in the same direction, Baumgarten added. "The copyright debates today and search for changes are too often driven by those enthused by the promise of new technology ... that anything standing in the way is to be simply tossed aside in favor of permitting it to happen," he said.
Some subcommittee members said they were concerned that copyright protections could get watered down with a rewrite of the law.
"It seems in the past few years there has been a shift in the public discourse about copyright away from the people who actually devote their talent to create works for the benefit of society, and those who invest in them, toward the users of works and the financial interests of those companies eager to commercially exploit them," said Representative Mel Watt, a North Carolina Democrat. "Free speech does not mean free stuff."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.