The explosion of the Internet as a medium to enjoy and distribute information, beginning in about 1992, eventually resulted in the United States enacting the Digital Millennium Copyright Act ("DMCA") into law in 1998. This Act had an immediate and significant effect on the Internet and several industries, such as the music industry, and how copyrighted information could be reproduced and distributed online.
A Summary of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act
The DMCA of 1998 was a bill meant to control piracy on the Internet. It was supported by a number of media industries including the music and movie industries, as well as computer software manufacturers and other industries in the business of producing copyrighted content or material that could be distributed over the Internet. The bill was opposed by a number of groups concerned about civil liberties and unnecessary restrictions on information, including scientists, educators and librarians.
A Brief History of the Act
During the early part of the 1990s, as Internet technologies advanced, large "file-sharing" networks popped up online. These networks allowed Internet users with the ability to "share" files and information directly off of their home PC. The MP3 music format led to an explosion of this data-sharing activity, and the music industry became concerned that the sharing of copyrighted intellectual property would erode not only the music industry, but also any other industry where artists produce copyrighted material. The most popular file sharing applications and protocols throughout the years included:
- Gnutella and Gnutella2
- BitTorrent (isoHunt, The Pirate Bay and others)
The earliest file sharing activities were not limited to music. Users started distributing software licenses, copyrighted movies and more. As the music and movie industries prompted authorities to crack down on file sharing users, a worldwide debate started regarding the rights of copyright holders versus the freedom of access to information. While in some cases the lines were clearly drawn, in other cases issues of copyright protection were gray and even federal regulators were not sure where the line should be drawn.
The Path to the DMCA
In 1996, the World Intellectual Property Organization ("WIPO"), a special agency within the United Nations, held a diplomatic conference throughout December of 1996 which resulted in a treaty outlining copyright protections within the context of computers and the Internet. The WIPO treaty included details about how "right of distribution" or communication of computer programs, photos, and data should be regulated or limited.
As a result of this treaty, the U.S. Congress debated for months regarding the creation of a new Act that would implement the components of that treaty, as well as appease the concerned media industries that were heavily lobbying government for action. Finally, Congress passed the DMCA in 1998, and Clinton signed it into law on October 28th of that year.
Digital Millennium Copyright Act Details
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act actually goes above and beyond the original WIPO treaty and includes provisions that:
- Make it illegal to attempt to bypass computer software licenses, including the sale of devices or software that can illegally copy commercial software
- Requires Internet Service Providers to immediately remove copyrighted materials from websites or storage hosted by the ISP
- Requires online movie or music distributors to pay "licensing fees" to companies that produce and copyright movies or music
In addition to making certain actions illegal, the act actually had some protections as well.
- It allows programmers to attempt to crack copyright protections if it's part of an effort to provide products that offer better computer security of better interoperability between software products.
- It protects Internet Service Providers from any liability if they've only inadvertently (due to user activity) transmitted copyrighted information, but did not host it.
- It exempts certain organizations and institutions (like libraries and schools) from the anti-circumvention part of the act in some cases.
- It protects the liability of nonprofits and schools that act as Internet service providers when any staff or student infringes on any copyright.
The Act was a balance between protecting the rights of artists while protecting major institutions from legal liability. In the end, the Act accomplished what it was created to accomplish - and it significantly changed the hosting and transmission of information over the Internet.
The Aftershock of the DMCA
The effects of the DMCA on the Internet were immediately noticeable. Initially, any file sharing service that depended on a central server for the storage of any copyrighted files got shut down by federal authorities. However, software developers and hackers lived up to their anti-authority reputations by producing technology, like Bit Torrent, which allowed for the sharing of files through "peer-to-peer" networks. In such a configuration, users host files on their own PC and share them out to other home PC users - creating a giant network of shared files with so many nodes that it's virtually impossible for the federal government to prosecute everyone. These networks in themselves are not illegal, but it's illegal when users share out copyrighted files. However, that still hasn't stopped a significant portion of users from doing so.
Other, more positive effects of the Act included:
- The creation of many very large online "stores" where Internet users can purchase and download movies and music on-demand.
- Important legal protections for writers and graphic designers who create copyrighted content for use on the Internet.
- Important legal protection for schools and non-profit organization from major lawsuits by the powerful music and movie industries.
- Important legal protection for ISP's that can't easily control what their users do or transmit once connected to the Internet.