Ethics of Computing Term Paper

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Copyright Infringement & the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998

This paper looks into the issues of copyright infringement and circumvention of technology with reference to Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. The author of this paper has carefully studied the law in question and has focused on various issues connected with this legislation. DMCA is a highly controversial law that has been staunchly opposed and actively supported by different section of the public and it has managed to attract great deal of media attention because of various lawsuits that emerged in this connection. The paper looks into some important Court cases for impartial and objective study of the law.



There has been a long-standing debate on the issue of freedom of speech in the United States. While the Constitution of the country explicitly grants American citizens the right to share information and to speak freely without fear of prosecution through the First Amendment, still both the government and public are confused about the extent to which this legislation is valid and applicable. This is because freedom of speech and the very closely connected issue of copyright infringement have now entered a new realm i.e. The digital world and simply speaking this one domain knew no laws or rules when it first invaded our lives. We need to understand that Internet has on the one hand made access to information easier but on the other hand the same medium has been accused of encouraging copyright violation which has now turned into one of the most heatedly debated issues. Businesses and the general public is not aware of the extent to which they can use copyrighted material available on the Internet while the online companies are puzzled as to what actually constitutes infringement and to what extent can they provide access to such materials to their valued users. With major problems surfacing in this connection, online and digital businesses have been forced to exercise more caution when dealing with copyrighted material.

Copyright laws have existed in the United States since the late 18th century but it was only in the beginning of the 20th century that Congress realized the importance of revising the laws by involving concerned people in the process. These laws provide protection to legal owners of intellectual property from possible exploitation of their hard work and talent. We need to understand that copyright is the only way through which owners can be protected from possible misuse of their intellectual property. But since the early days of the 20th century, the only people involved in the process are the legislators and those who are connected with the pro-law quarter. Thus this not-so-objective approach to revision of law has resulted in such amendments of copyright laws that have sparked firestorm of controversy in the country. It is important to understand that most laws whether they are controversial in nature or not are bound to divide the public opinion. This is because while many would side with government's interpretation of a problem, others would feel victimized by the legislation. In short, most laws in the United States spark a controversy but none of the recent laws have been as heatedly and widely debated as the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998. This law came into operation under the Clinton administration after it was found that many companies and individuals were providing illegal access to copyrighted material both on the Internet and through various digital technologies.

With the rapid increase in creation of digital technologies, it is only obvious that government saw the need for an detailed copyright law that would protect legal authors and creators from possible exploitation and misuse of their legally owned intellectual assets. Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998, which is now commonly known as DMCA, was the result of government's effort in this connection. But needless to say that this law too has been both actively supported and staunchly opposed by the public and various industries. The driving force behind the enactment of this law was the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) treaties, which were implemented with the primary objective of facilitating electronic commerce while at the same time providing adequate protection to copyright owners. In 1996, the international community adopted two important WIPO-sponsored treaties known as Copyright Treaty (WCT) and the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty (WPPT).

Many people are of the view that while DMCA does provide protection to owners of copyrighted material; it somehow also encroaches upon an individual's rights to access information, to conduct business and to speak without fear. The pro-law group however maintains that such legislation is necessary because without legal aid, the creators of original work would be deprived of their fair share of profits.

Jessica Lemits in her book 'Digital Copyright' traces of history of copyright laws in the United States and feels that DMCA is different from such others laws because of the fact that it primarily focuses on digital technologies and their possible misuse. She also feels that DMCA is a fairly lengthy, which often makes it incomprehensible to the general public. She writes in Chapter 2 of the book, "In 1998, copyright lobbyists persuaded Congress to enact a 26,000-word, 50-page coda to the copyright statute setting forth a new and convoluted series of rights and exceptions for digital copyright. Among other innovations, the new law for the first time purports to make it illegal for individual consumers to gain unauthorized access to protected works. There are a slew of exceptions, for computer security experts engaged in testing the security of a particular computer system, for example, or for law enforcement officers investigating crimes, but they are cast in prose so crabbed and so encumbered with conditions as to be of little use to anyone who doesn't have a copyright lawyer around to explain which hoops to jump through."

DMCA is certainly one of those much-needed laws that sparks firestorm of controversy simply because of their influence and significance. This is a very important point in this connection, which must be kept in sight if we want to study the issue impartially, and objectively. The legislation may not have any inherent flaws but the very reason it has attracted strong reaction from the public is because it is an extremely powerful law which can increase the rights of legal owners while at the same time decrease the scope of freedom of speech and access to information. It was once felt that the domain of Internet could easily stay away from legal tangles as censorship had not been able to invade the world of online businesses but this all changed as soon as copyright infringement cases began surfacing. Because digital technologies are rapidly progressing and new and more sophisticated devices and tools are emerging in the market everyday, DMCA has now become the uncrowned king of the copyright legislation in the United States.

We need to understand that technology is certainly more on the side of an average user who doesn't support the DMCA while it only provides limited benefits to the pro-law quarter. But since regular average users of technology far outnumber those who actively participated in the making of this law, it is only natural that we get to hear more anti-DMCA views than pro-ones. But keeping the advocates or proponents aside, the amount of attention this law has attracted is proof enough that DMCA is a powerful tool with which to define the extent of an individual's access to copyrighted material on the Internet and through digital media.

There are so many facets of this legislation that it is no easy to summarize the entire law in few lines but still we need to understand what are some of the highlights of this law. Therefore some important characteristics of this law are being summarized below which will help us understand who the law seeks to protect and how can we be accused of copyright infringement if found to be in illegal possession of copyrighted material.

In this connection it would also be important to mention the important cases of Felten and his colleagues because it shows how DMCA can often confuse people regarding their own right to share information and also that of Dmitri Sklyarov which was the first case in which criminal charges were levied completely under DMCA.


Black Box provisions of DMCA

The Black Box provisions of DMCA aim at expanding the scope of previous copyright laws in the United States and thus seek to impose a ban on all those devices and methods which could help in circumvention of digital technology. The anti-circumvention provisions of the legislation seek to protect copyright owners from circumvention of technology. Since it is basically a copyright law therefore we must understand that circumvention of technology has been prohibited because it violates rights of the real owners or creators. For example if a person is found to be tampering with technology in such a way…[continue]

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