Head of US copyright says "DMCA does what it is supposed to do"

Marybeth Peters, the US Register of Copyrights, has come out in favor of the controversial 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, saying "it did what it was supposed to do." The DMCA makes it possible to sue companies that make music, video and ebook players that play back DRM file-formats without permission, giving Apple the right to sue Real for making its own music player to run on the iPod. This aspect of the DMCA is a form of "private law," allowing companies to attach any conditions they want to their offerings, and criminalizing competition that gives you a better deal.

The DMCA also makes it possible to censor the Internet by sending "takedown notices" to web-hosting companies alleging that some of their content infringes copyright. This system has been widely abused — Diebold used it in an attempt to silence critics who'd published a whistleblower memo that showed that the company had supplied faulty voting machines in US elections; the Church of Scientology uses it to silence their critics; serial troll Michael Crook used it against websites that criticized him, and the Science Fiction Writers of America recently sent a notice that resulted in the removal of dozens of non-infringing works and works by authors whose copyright they don't represent, including my own novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and a list of good sf books for junior high students. Andrew Burt, the Science Fiction Writers of America VP who sent out the list, has since characterized it as containing only three errors because only three people complained — but most people who receive DMCA takedown orders assume that they must be infringers and do not complain.

The DMCA has also been vital to the music industry lawsuits against 20,000 US music fans, and resulted in the US threatening and jailing researchers and scholars who wrote about information security.

Despite all this, there is no evidence that the DMCA has curbed Internet infringement — indeed, all indications are that unauthorized music and movie downloading are on the increase and show no signs of slowing. Furthermore, the DMCA lawsuits against technology companies like MP3.com and Napster, and against tens of thousands of American music-fans, have not generated one cent of income for actual musicians, as all the windfalls generated by these suits go to line the pockets of the record labels (who are nevertheless in freefall and likely to crater within the next five to ten years).

So what, exactly, was the DMCA supposed to do? Give the entertainment companies enough rope to hang themselves? Terrorize American college students? Scare the American security industry offshore?

Of course, Peters (who doesn't own a computer!) is no copyright apologist — in May, 2005, she spoke out against the "Betamax" principle, a bedrock of American copyright law that allows technologies to be legally manufactured if they have a legal use. She also said that copyright infringement funds terrorism, and that the US should clobber foreign countries that sought to have local copyright policies that promoted cultural diversity and development (to be fair, I did once get her to admit that copyright term extension was a bad idea.

"I'm a supporter; I think it did what it was supposed to do," Register of Copyrights Marybeth Peters said of the 1998 law at an appearance at the Future of Music Policy Summit here. "No law is ever perfect, but I remain a supporter."