New U.S. copyright laws ban Webcasts of many TV, radio programs

Published: 1998-10-30

10.30.98

The two-day-old U.S. copyright law, originally presented as an anti-piracy measure, is imposing unanticipated new restrictions on journalists, broadcasters and librarians.

President Clinton signed the new Copyright Act into law Wednesday. It was the culmination of months of hard lobbying by the major Hollywood studios to increase charges for use of copyrighted material online. But the true price of the new law, both in new mandatory financial payments and in restrictions on the free flow of news and information, is only now becoming clear.

The burgeoning use of audio and video over the Internet will be hit hard by new mandatory fees far higher than those paid by cable or over-the-air broadcasters. Some content now routine on all-news radio stations and such television services as CNN and MSNBC could now be illegal on the Internet.

Currently, television and radio stations voluntarily license music for a small fee from ASCAP or BMI, organizations that represent musicians and composers. But the new law hits anyone transmitting audio or video over the Internet by providing for a mandatory tax on all gross revenues. The tax rate has not yet been set, but figures of from 5% to 7% are being discussed — and the recording industry, which would administer the new fund, wants the rate set even higher. Hidden among the provisions of the law are content controls that were little reported or discussed before Congress approved this bill.

For example, the recording industry can now restrict the choice of music anyone can play over the Internet, by setting ceilings on the number of times certain songs can be played. No such controls now exist on broadcast or cable television or radio.

This could have a clear impact on journalists. When a musician is in the news ã the death of Frank Sinatra and Elton John's tribute to Princess Diana are examples ã CNN, MSNBC and other news operations schedule frequent broadcasts of their music. The Web sites of major newspapers and magazines may also feature clips of the artists' music. But according to some analysts, the new law will prohibit those newscasts ã including Internet simulcasts of legal broadcast and cable television and radio programs.

The new law is having a chilling effect on the free flow of printed information: Educational Web sites can now be prosecuted for distributing information online that has until now been freely available at public libraries and on library Web sites.

One Web site devoted to classic literature, Eldritch Press, notified readers on its home page that the new law would force it to close next month.

"This site will be shut November 11, 1998, as a direct result of the chilling effect of the series of laws regarding copyright and the Internet passed by the U.S. Congress," read the notice. "We no longer see a future for us as individuals to construct a free public library for the world on the Internet."

The American Library Association months ago predicted that the new law would threaten the American tradition of free flow of information, and librarians now face new expanded federal regulations.

"What we are worried about here is that we have for the first time a prohibition on simply accessing information," Adam Eisgrau of the American Library Association told The New York Times. "In the past, the law has punished you on how you used that information."

One Web site operator vowed to defy the spirit of the law while observing its letter.

"I'm going to post 72 books today, just to say, 'Take that!' " said Michael Hart, a visiting scientist at Carnegie Mellon University and director of Project Gutenberg free book site, in an interview with The New York Times.

Hart's site features 1,700 books, all in the public domain and posted by volunteers, and he said he was worried about the future availability even of old texts. According to Hart, books that "squeaked by" just before the new law took effect include Ulysses, by James Joyce, and Samuel Butler's translation of Homer's The Odyssey.

And a group of leading U.S. computer scientists and researchers sent a letter to the White House warning the new law "has the potential to imperil computer systems and networks throughout the United States, criminalize many current university courses and research in information security, and severely disrupt a growing American industry in information security technology."

The Clinton administration maintained that the more-onerous provisions of the bill were changed before it was passed by Congress. And in Hollywood, major movie studios uncorked the champagne to celebrate the new law, the result of months of high pressure by movie makers and record companies, most now owned by those same studios.

"This gives us enough confidence that our ability to use the digital domain to encrypt, encode and scramble our works can truly protect our properties," Time Warner Senior Vice President Tim Boggs, the company's chief lobbyist, told the Los Angeles Times in a story headlined "Company Town: Congress Puts Power Behind Hollywood's Goals."

Boggs was echoing the original stated purpose of the law, which was to protect Hollywood movies and U.S. music from being pirated by China and other countries, where perfect digital copies of CDs and movies are sold without any royalties being paid to the producers.

But opponents termed the new law too broad, representing a reversal of the centuries-old tradition of copyright dating back to the writing of the Constitution. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution enumerated the powers of Congress, including copyright.

"The Congress shall have power 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."

Eisgrau noted the purpose of this provision was primarily the advancement of science and the arts.

"The whole premise of copyright law is not and was not intended to provide a revenue stream. It was intended to provide a sufficient incentive to have information created. Information was intended to be a public good, not a private commodity," Eisgrau told the Times.


Related

New York Times: Free Book Sites Hurt by Copyright Law

CNET: Copyright law will cost Net radio


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Author(s): Adam Clayton Powell Iii
Title: New U.S. copyright laws ban Webcasts of many TV, radio programs
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Published: 1998-10-30
First posted on CODOH: Oct. 28, 1998, 6 p.m.
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