A week ago, while the United States focused on the approaching election, President Clinton signed a piece of legislation that will have far more effect on most Americans than any of the political machinations of the impeachment process.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act was the culmination of months of intense lobbying by the film, music, and software industries. It imposes new safeguards for software, music, and written works on the Internet, and outlaws technologies that can crack copyright-protection devices.
On the surface, the bill was designed to prevent digital piracy. But many other groups worry that the new copyright act goes too far, and that it poses significant problems for librarians, broadcasters, and journalists. Many of these groups worry that the new legislation will lead companies to build a digital tollgate around their content and undermine fair-use rights that allow educators to copy and share material with certain restrictions.
For the first time we have 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."
The new act extends copyright protection until 2018. This would keep some books out of the public domain for more than a century after publication. Eldritch Press, a site devoted to posting works in the public domain on the Internet, has announced it will cease operation on Nov. 11 because of what the site's operator called the chilling effect of the series of laws regarding copyright and the Internet.
The new law also allows the record industry to limit the number of times a song can be played over the Net. No such controls are placed on other industries. Some operators in the burgeoning online audio industry say this is just a part of the price of doing business. In fact, some say it will actually allow them to play more songs, because they won't have to contact each label for approval. But others worry that the new laws will hit smaller operations the hardest. They won't be able to afford the fees and will fall through the cracks, mirroring the situation in radio where most stations are controlled by a few companies.
The librarian of Congress will set rules for who is eligible for exemptions from the new act, and will also work with the Commerce Department to determine if these new limitations unfairly hinder access to copyrighted material.
* Tom Regan is the associate editor of The Christian Science Monitor's Electronic Edition. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org