A US Congress subcommittee met this week to debate a consumer rights cat that affects digital music.

The consumer rights act aims to liberalize what users can do with digital music, but entertainment-industry representatives warn that the Digital Media Consumers' Rights Act of 2003, introduced last year, will open the floodgates to piracy.

However, technology experts and educators argue that passing the act would restore rights to consumers and promote innovation.

The Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection Subcommittee of the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce listened to the arguments but took no action after the Wednesday hearing. The subcommittee is expected to act on the measure this session, however.

Preservation of knowledge
Holding up his Apple iPod, Representative John Doolittle (R-California) said: "This is an interesting device. It can download entire CD collections, entire books for now. It may be that people would be prevented from taking advantage of this convenient technology."

Miriam Nisbet, representing the Council for the American Library Association, argued that one price of current laws forbidding duplication is a high cost to libraries, where the main goal is education through a free flow of information.

The bill "would enable libraries to make preservation copies of material on CDs, a preservation of knowledge," she said. "It would allow foreign-language teachers to use products purchased abroad to be used in US classrooms. None of these are currently allowed."

Proponents say that the bill would require copy-protected CDs be clearly labelled, and would protect consumers from being prosecuted under anti-circumvention regulations in instances where no copyright law has been broken.

The bill's opponents argue that it's impossible to control how many additional – illegal – copies are made once one is permitted. But no technology allows duplication for personal use without also allowing for-profit duplication, industry representatives respond.

Rights fight
Both sides agree that a balance in copyright law is needed. The conflict is between consumers' rights and copyright holders' rights. The public wants access to information and technology, while copyright holders want to control the dissemination of their digital property.

"Taking a hammer to the weaving machines didn't stop the Industrial Revolution. The consumer poses little threat, I know," said Allan Swift, a former member of the House of Representatives. Swift told the subcommittee that he often takes songs from his CD collection and makes mixes for friends and family.

Those in favour of the bill argue that the same concerns and discussion took place when the VCR was first introduced. In 1984, the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of fair use by consumers in Sony vs Universal, the so-called Betamax case. Had the court ruled the other way, the DVD player might never have entered the market, they note.