Washington-Amid the legal turmoil over the online music-sharing service Napster, a top consumer-electronics lobbyist warned that applying copyright laws to the Internet would threaten the First Amendment.
"We must be careful in advocating or accepting restrictions on new technology, as they may also result in restrictions on freedoms," said Gary Shapiro, president and chief executive officer of the Consumer Electronics Association.
Shapiro pledged his support for the free distribution of materials over the World Wide Web at a forum sponsored by the Media Institute, a nonprofit research foundation.
The Supreme Court recognized that the First Amendment protects not only creativity, but also the right to obtain controversial materials, he said.
"Consumer electronics products are a vital link in this right to receive," he said, citing the importance of fax machines, VCRs and electronic mail in the promotion of democracy throughout the world.
Intellectual property laws must be balanced with the fair-use doctrine, which protects the limited use of copyrighted materials, Shapiro said.
Napster has asserted that the fair use doctrine allows listeners to use its technology to swap materials.
Since 19-year-old college dropout Shawn Fanning founded Napster less than a year ago, users, musicians, manufacturers, entertainment executives and members of Congress have wrangled over the social and financial effects of sharing copyrighted materials.
On Tuesday, Peter Chernin, chief operating officer of News Corp. and Fox Entertainment Group, attacked computer manufacturers and Internet-service providers as irresponsible for fostering the piracy of copyrighted materials.
Chernin warned that the free distribution of music, movies and published writing would cost jobs.
Responding to Chernin and other Napster opponents, Shapiro said, "They wrongly assert that every unauthorized copy is a lost sale." New technologies create new markets and economic possibilities, he argued.
"Technology enriches creators," he said, praising the Internet's ability to reach large audiences and foster creativity.
Shapiro said that long copyright terms strengthen ownership rights and criticized lengthy protections for fast-changing digital technologies. Many copyrights last for at least 70 years.
He predicted that the terms of copyrights and patents, which last 20 years, would be pushed closer together, that Internet regulation would diminish and that new forms of payment for online services would develop.
Recalling the dispute between the competing Betamax and VHS video-recording systems in the 1980s, Shapiro said fears about new media often wane over time.
"The lesson for us is that we must look past the doomsday predictions raised by copyright owners due to new technologies," he said.
States News Service