WASHINGTON -- The Senate passed a bill Thursday to enhance copyright protections for music, movies and other creative works distributed on the Internet.
The bill, approved 99-0 after a brief debate, would implement two copyright treaties -- one for written material and one for sound recordings -- adopted in 1996 by the United Nations' World Intellectual Property Organization.
The Senate still has to formally ratify these treaties with separate legislation; this bill, which has yet to pass the House, represents the legislation that would implement the treaties.
The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said the bill is vital for the continuing growth of Internet commerce and the U.S. lead in online commerce.
"This bill will help us maintain this edge in the increasingly global market," Hatch said.
Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., called it "one of the most important pieces of technology legislation in the 105th Congress."
Implementing the treaties, Hatch said, will make it easier for American artists to distribute music, movies, software, literary works and other creative endeavors over the Internet since they would enjoy stronger protections against unauthorized piracy.
"Due to ease with which digital works can be copied and distributed worldwide, virtually instantaneously, copyright owners will hesitate to make their works readily available on the Internet without reasonable assurance that they will be protected against massive piracy," Hatch said.
Countries that sign the treaties are to make it unlawful for people to circumvent high-tech tools such as passwords or other security measures that authors and others use to protect their works from unauthorized copying. For example, this provision would make it illegal to design a "black box" to unscramble pay-per-view cable television programs, Hatch said in a statement explaining the bill.
The bill would limit copyright liability of online and Internet service providers, such as America Online or Microsoft Network.
This section emphasizes that these Internet companies are not running afoul of copyright laws just because their computer systems make numerous copies of material in order to have it transmitted to customers' personal computers. The Internet providers generally are protected against copyright lawsuits if they act as a "mere conduit" for transmitting copyrighted articles, music or artwork.
The bill would update the current copyright exemption for libraries to make digital copies of works for archival and replacement purposes under certain conditions.
Sponsors said that in 1996, U.S. industries producing copyright materials accounted for nearly 4 percent of the nation's economic output, or $278.4 billion.
"International copyright standards are critical to protecting American firms and American jobs," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
The measure is backed by the motion picture, recording, software and publishing industries, as well as other high-technology groups.