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Hatch pledges to keep online music accessible
(IDG) -- Putting the recording industry, entertainment conglomerates and even the future AOL-Time Warner on notice, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee warned that he would work to ensure that online music doesn't fall under the control of a few powerful distributors.
At a two-day conference on the future of digital music that pitted such parties as Napster and the Recording Industry Association of America against each other in panel discussions, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, pledged to use his position to keep the Internet open for the benefit of fans and artists.
"I do not think it is any benefit for artists or fans to have all the new, wide distribution channels in the online world controlled by those who have controlled the old, narrower ones," Hatch said, to spirited shouts and applause from a crowd of students in a Georgetown University hall. "This is especially true if they achieve that control by leveraging their dominance in content or conduit space in an anticompetitive way to control the new, independent music services that are attempting to enhance the consumer's experience of music."
He aimed a veiled warning, too, at AOL and Time Warner, which still await Federal Communications Commission approval for their merger. "If those digital pipes through which the new music will be delivered are significantly narrowed by gatekeepers to limit access to or divert fans to preferred content, a unique opportunity will be lost for both the creators of music and their fans," he said. "That is why I think it is crucial for policy makers to be vigilant in keeping the pipes wide open." Time Warner is the parent company of CNN.com.
The conference, sponsored by a group called the Coalition for the Future of Music, drew marquee names such as performer Chuck D and EMI's Ted Cohen to discuss some of the issues that are working their way through the courts in the recording industry's suit against Napster. There were some light moments, such as when Chuck D told of his son's desire to purchase a Madonna song whose title he didn't know. Chuck D struggled to find the album on the Web site of Media Play, only to purchase the wrong one. "That's why my three kids will always be on Napster," he said.
Hilary Rosen, president and CEO of the RIAA, drew a mixed response. She got cheers when she spoke of the need for artists to be paid, and hisses when she argued that current copyright laws don't need revision. Outside the meeting, Rosen was asked to respond to Hatch's comments. "I've made a career out of not disagreeing with senators," she said.
But Hatch suggested that Congress might look again at copyright issues, to ensure that dominant companies don't violate antitrust laws in an effort to squelch new technologies.
Hatch, who moonlights as a singer/songwriter of inspirational music, said he believes it should be legally possible to offer online file-sharing distribution methods, such as those offered by the court-embattled Napster service, to consumers. He also said he believes creators should be paid for the sale or use of their copyrighted works. He praised experimental projects that license music to such services and offer people legal access to music through paid subscriptions, but said more options need to be available. Entertainment conglomerates need to move more quickly to respond to demand, he said.
"I welcome record labels into the online world ? along with other large entertainment conglomerates, cable companies and large online services. I have encouraged them to catch up with consumer demand," he said. "They are beginning to do so, at least in experimental ways."
Hatch has been at the center of major legislative reform of copyright laws over the past decade, including the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which updated copyright protections for digital content. He said that he thought the law would spur digital-music distribution, but that he is still waiting. His committee has come under increasing pressure from ISPs, Webcasters and others to reopen the Copyright Act to provide better protection for "fair use" of copyrighted works online.
"Fans deserve to choose music and entertainment options," he said. "Artists deserve their fair shake at getting space to share their creations."
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