A House Commerce Committee panel held an oversight hearing Nov. 16 to debate whether or not the "fair use" section of the Copyright Act needs to be broadened. Fair use gives scholars, researchers and

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A House Commerce Committee panel held an oversight hearing Nov. 16 to debate whether or not the "fair use" section of the Copyright Act needs to be broadened. Fair use gives scholars, researchers and consumers a limited ability to use and copy copyrighted material without permission.

Members of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection also heard testimony about a pending bill with an expanded fair use section that would allow consumers to copy protected digital material to other devices they own for their own private use -- by circumventing anti-copying measures such as digital rights management (DRM) software. The lawmakers were split on whether that's a good idea.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., and Rep. Mary Bono,R-Cal., were among the most vocal in warning that bad players and pirates would take advantage of any changes to allow consumers to bypass or crack copying mechanisms. Such changes are embodied in the pending bill, Digital Media Consumers' Rights Act of 2005, H.R. 1201. It was introduced in March.

In his opening statement, Stearns said "the bill would allow for the development of technologies that assist consumers in fair use of copyrighted material," and termed it a "noble pursuit."

But, he continued, "when we consider the real and growing threat of piracy and hacking, it becomes very obvious that such a policy could be easily exploited by criminals and hackers looking to make a fast buck on someone else's creative genius."

However, the bill's co-sponsors, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Tex., and Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., contended that current law should be changed to allow libraries, researchers and everyday citizens to code-crack protected material if copies were made for personal use. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) now forbids circumvention for any reason. Critics contend the Internet environment of today is different from 1997-1998, when the DMCA was debated and signed into law.

Specifically, the provision in the Barton-Boucher bill states "it is not a violation of this section to circumvent a technological measure in order to obtain access to the work for purposes of making noninfringing use of the work."

One of the main examples mentioned at the hearing was giving music listeners the opportunity to copy a CD they had purchased so they can play it on incompatible platforms. Barton, incidentally, is chairman of the full Commerce Committee.

Supporters for fair use reforms and passage of HR 1201 included the consumer fairness group, Public Knowledge, the Net Coalition and the Consumer Electronics Assn. They also don't want government- mandated DRM policies.

With Congress soon to wrap up its business for the year, insiders say it's highly doubtful that the bill will progress this year. But judging from the high level of interest, the issue of whether to expand the fair use provision will be revisited next session.