Fair Use Irks The RIAA

One of the news services I get daily clips from about various intellectual property issues in this electronics age is Doug Isenberg’s Gigalaw. This morning one of the headlines caught my attention: Fair Use Bill would ‘Legalize Hacking.’ RIAA Says. Boo hoo for the RIAA.

Fair Use” is a long standing doctrine under U.S. copyright law, which permits limited use of copyrighted material without permission from copyright holders for scholarly efforts and review. The fair use doctrine has also been applied to the right of consumers to make backups of software they have purchased. Under the fair use doctrine, we can backup our CDs to our hard disks to preserve our purchase and data. However, fair use does not permit one to wantonly make copies of things and distribute them to others.

But that distinction does not matter to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), an organization which helped bully the Digital Millennium Copyright Act through Congress in 1998. The DMCA made it illegal to reverse engineer and disable most any effort used to protect digital content. The DMCA effectively slammed the door on fair use as provided for in copyright law.

Now, U.S. Representatives Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat, and John Doolittle, a California Republican, according to an article in InfoWorld, have introduced a bill called The Freedom and Innovation Revitalizing U.S. Entrepreneurship (FAIR USE) Act in order to restore fair use rights to consumers.

This new bill upsets the RIAA greatly, considering that they have worked hard to trample upon the rights of consumers with the DMCA, and then have embarked upon a “reeducation” campaign about file sharing, where the educational part involves suing everyone they think has been illegally sharing music files. Very consumer friendly organization, the RIAA – not!

Under the DMCA, without fair use provisions, we consumers are beholden to the whims and mercies of distributors of electronic media content under the guise (or curse) of something called Digital Rights Management (DRM). DRM is a bane to one’s being able to freely use purchased media for one’s own use. For example, if you buy a movie from Xbox Live Marketplace to view on your Xbox 360, you have a limited number of views and days in which to do the viewing, and then poof, the content is no longer accessible. With Apple iTunes music and video, you can only view the content on a limited number of “authorized” PCs or Apple iPod players. Should Apple decide to stop supporting iTunes platform at some point in the future, you would no longer have access to that content. And the future is even scarier as some companies have suggested that we should pay for every use of content – imaging being charged money for listening to the same song over and over, or having to pay something every time your kid wants to see Shrek on your TV, even if it’s the 17th viewing of the same movie.

On the flip side, if you take care of your CDs and DVDs, you can have them last decades (in theory), and you can also backup the CDs into whatever the most current safe storage form is (and DVDs too, but then arguably you’re breaking the laws created by the DMCA). And you don’t have to pay for repeated use.

Our use of content as consumers and purchasers should not be dictated solely by draconian organizations like the RIAA, nor by corporations looking to squeeze us for more money at every turn.

Boucher and Doolittle are doing a great thing by introducing this bill. One can only hope that their efforts to protect consumers will win against the big dollar lobbying by the music and movie industries. Boucher is no stranger to the fight for Fair Use, incidentally – in 2001, he gave a speech about this very topic.

There’s no question that copyright law needs to be respected. Artists and creators of works – whether they be musicians, writers, actors, software developers, artists, or any one of a near limitless number of professional content creators – need the respect (and revenue) their works generate. Making copies of content and given them to one’s friends is wrong (we call that stealing), and selling illegal copies for a profit is even worse (we call that piracy). But on the other end of the spectrum is the fair use doctrine, and the necessary right of people to protect the investment they have made in their purchases. That right needs to be returned to the people, and protected.