Unsurprisingly, one of the most-watched subject areas is copyright. For those of you who are interested in what copyright-policy-related issues actually are up before Congress right now, here's a quick, biased-toward-things-I-find-interesting rundown:
- S. 1642, Higher Education Amendments of 2007. Section 477 would require colleges and universities to inform students that "unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materials, including unauthorized peer-to-peer file-sharing, may subject the students to civil and criminal liabilities," as well as requiring schools to provide students with a description of their policies on file-sharing and of penalties for violating federal copyright law. Passed the Senate in July 2007, doesn't seem to be scheduled in the House yet.
- H. Res. 314, Supporting the goals of World Intellectual Property Day, and for other purposes. This is just a resolution, not a bill; it doesn't propose any changes to federal law. It basically just says "yay intellectual property, intellectual property is great, the House of Representatives thinks World Intellectual Property Day is a good idea." Since it's just a resolution, not actually a bill, it won't go on to the Senate if the House passes it, and the President won't have to decide whether to sign it. But, hey, it's on the calendar.
- H.R. 3746, the College Access and Opportunity Act of 2007. This is very similar to S. 1642, above; in this bill, section 484 talks about the same kind of information-providing requirements. This kind of thing happens a lot in Congress -- the House and Senate will almost simultaneously produce very similar bills, they'll get voted on separately, and eventually one of them will vote to approve the other house's bill. Introduced in October last year, not scheduled for debate yet.
- H. Res. 414, Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that foreign governments should work diligently to legalize all computer software used by such foreign governments, and for other purposes. Another resolution which won't directly affect U.S. law, but which may influence how we interact with other countries. It exhorts foreign governments to follow WTO agreements, the Berne Convention, and the WIPO Copyright Treaty with regard to how they (as in, the governments themselves, not necessarily citizens of their countries) use copyrighted software. Introduced May 2007, not scheduled for debate yet.
- S. 1353, the Internet Radio Equality Act of 2007. This one is pretty interesting: it's basically the legislative branch attempting to overturn some actions the executive branch took in early 2007 with regard to royalties that web radio stations must pay to content owners. It also proposes that these changes be written into law. Should be of interest to anyone who's involved in producing web radio, whether you're doing it commercially or whether you're just one guy with a copy of Shoutcast. (For instance: did you know that under current law, to be considered a "noncommercial webcaster", you actually have to apply to the IRS for a tax exemption? This stuff is pretty thorny.) H.R. 2060 is quite similar to this one; both have been introduced to their respective houses, neither has been scheduled for debate yet.
- S. 760, the Four Corners Television Act of 2007. Would make it less of a hassle for cable and satellite providers to rebroadcast TV transmissions originally broadcast in state capitals to more remote areas of the state. S. 124, the Satellite and Cable Access Act of 2007, is a competing Senate bill. (That happens sometimes.) S. 258 is also quite similar, but more general, and worth looking at for the interesting issues it brings up -- it allows satellite carriers to rebroadcast content to far-away subscribers even if they've done so illegally before. Introduced last March, not scheduled yet.
- H.R. 1689, the Curb Illegal Downloading on College Campuses Act of 2007. If passed, this bill would let the Department of Education give colleges and universities money that they could use to make it harder for students to use campus networks to illegally download copyrighted material. This is a really short bill, and doesn't go into any kind of detail about what sorts of policies or programs schools can or can't implement. The concept of fair use is never mentioned anywhere in the bill. In practice, I wouldn't be at all surprised if schools ended up getting grants from the Department of Education and spending them on RIAA propaganda materials. I'll be watching this one pretty closely. OTOH, it went to the Committee on Education and Labor last March and hasn't been amended or scheduled. This will be a short legislative year thanks to the election; I bet this one dies in committee.
- H.R. 1524, the Artist-Museum Partnership Act. S. 548 is basically the same thing. Would allow artists, writers, musicians and scholars to donate their works to certain types of nonprofit organisations (e.g., museums) and claim it as a deduction on their taxes. This one's been hanging out in the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Committee on Finance since early last year.
- S. 256, the Perform Act of 2007. Also deals with royalties for playing music on the radio, though this one would apply to ordinary FM and AM radio as well as web radio. There's a weird little clause in here, in section 2(c), which I find rather troubling: it requires broadcasters to use technology (read: DRM, though I don't quite get how) to "prevent the making of copies or phonorecords embodying the transmission in whole or in part, except for reasonable recording." What's "reasonable recording", you ask? Well, they define it later. A "reasonable recording" is private and noncommercial, for starters -- ok, that's fine, that's fair use. But the bill doesn't want you, in the privacy of your own home, to be able to (for instance) use software that automatically records only the tracks from a web radio station that match a list of artists you like. (Apparently it's okay for me to listen to "Goth Hits of the '80s" and manually start recording every time a Cure track comes on, but if I write a program to listen to the stream for me and start recording when the word "Cure" appears in the artist field, that would be illegal under this bill.) But it gets worse: a "reasonable recording" is also one that's encumbered with DRM preventing me from redistributing it to anyone, or even to my iPod. (If I have a "secure in-home network", like a set-top box, that's okay, but not my iPod. WTF.)
What I find most offensive about this part of the bill is that it doesn't take into account the desires of individual artists. For instance: I listen to Jonathan Coulton's podcast. iTunes downloads it for me, automatically, every time Jonathan posts a new podcast. Jonathan releases his music under Creative Commons, meaning that he's quite happy for me to go around giving copies of his music to whoever I want. Now, maybe podcasts don't count as "transmissions" under this interpretation of the law, but what if I find an "all Creative Commons works, all the time" web radio station, and decide I want to round out my Jonny C collection by automatically capturing every Coulton track the station plays? Illegal, if this bill passes.
I don't like this bill because it casts a "chilling effect" on innovation. Why prohibit me from capturing just the tracks I want (if the creators are okay with that), and redistributing them if the creators are okay with that? It's an attempt to bring the hammer down on copyright infringement in a way that also prohibits non-infringing behaviour, and that's not cool in my book.
- Moving on, S. 522, the Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Act. This one would establish a task force to crack down on the international trade and domestic importing of counterfeit goods, e.g. medicines, DVDs, mechanical parts, purses, &c. Sent to the Committee on the Judiciary last February, hasn't left yet.
- H.R. 1201, the Freedom and Innovation Revitalizing U.S. Entrepreneurship Act of 2007. This one would fix a lot of broken stuff in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. If passed, it would be legal to circumvent DRM, break encryption, or otherwise defeat copyright protection for the purpose of doing something non-infringing with the content involved -- for instance, a teacher could use DeCSS to decrypt a couple of DVDs in order to use segments of them in a video for the classroom, or you could remove DRM on music you've bought in order to make it playable on an MP3 player which doesn't support that kind of DRM. It's also on the pile for the Committee on the Judiciary. (They're busy guys.)
- Finally, S. 1957, the Design Piracy Prohibition Act. Same thing as H.R. 2033. It would extend copyright protection to fashion design, and establishes a bunch of definitions and policies related to how that would work.
(I skipped a couple of bills which don't appear to have anything to do with copyright policy, e.g., appropriations bills affecting the Copyright Office.)
Anyway, the summaries and text are all right there for you to read. These are actual bills before Congress right now, so if there are any you particularly support or dislike, then let your elected representatives know! It's a much better use of your time than railing about things Congress isn't even looking at.