By RUTH SIEVERS
Television viewers who receive their broadcast stations via satellite will continue to be able to watch television, thanks to the passage of the Intellectual Property and Communications Omnibus Reform Act of 1999.
Just prior to leaving for the holiday season, on Nov. 19, Congress passed the bill (S. 1948) as part of the consolidated appropriations bill (H.R. 3194). President Clinton signed the measure on Nov. 29, and H.R. 3194 is now Public Law 106-113.
Chief among its copyright provisions is the extension of the compulsory license found in section 119 of title 17 (the copyright law), which permits the retransmission of distant television station signals. The license was set to expire on Dec. 31, and without the extension, millions of viewers would have faced a dark holiday for TV viewing. The license is extended for another five years, or until Dec. 31, 2004.
In addition, the bill creates a new compulsory license at section 122 of title 17, a royalty-free license for retransmission of local television stations by satellite carriers.
"For the first time, satellite carriers will be able to legally offer what most Americans want -- local television stations," said the Copyright Office's senior attorney for compulsory licenses, Bill Roberts, in describing the provisions of the legislation. Previously, when satellite viewers wanted to watch network television, they had to watch stations broadcast from a distant city.
The new license should make it easier for satellite carriers to compete with cable operators, who have always been able to offer local programming. "Dish Network is already offering the service, and DirecTV is close behind," said Mr. Roberts.
In addition to extending the section 119 license, Congress also reduced the royalty fees that operators have to pay. As a result of a Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel (CARP) decision two years ago, which was based on legislative mandates, fees were raised. The new legislation reduces the rate per subscriber for superstation rebroadcasts by 30 percent and the rate per subscriber for network rebroadcasts by 45 percent.
Congress also changed the mechanism for determining when a subscriber is eligible to receive distant network stations. Many people who lost their distant programming as a result of recent judicial decisions that found satellite operators in violation of the law may be "grandfathered" to continue to receive those signals. A number of other provisions relating to the satellite license are included in the new act.
The Intellectual Property and Communications Omnibus Reform Act of 1999 also contains a number of technical amendments relating to the Vessel Hull Design Protection Act, which is chapter 13 of title 17. Most important, the sunset provision of chapter 13 was removed, so that chapter 13 is now a permanent part of the law. Among other changes is an expanded definition of a "vessel."
The definition of a work made for hire in section 101 of title 17 was amended to include "sound recordings" in the list of types of specially ordered or commissioned works that may be works made for hire if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument.
The bill removes the requirement that a Copyright Office rule-making pursuant to section 1201(a)(1), required under last year's Digital Millennium Copyright Act legislation, be "on the record," a legal term that would have required an infrequently used, formal trial-like procedure.
A large part of the legislation is devoted to patent reform. Other provisions include those on cyberpiracy in domain names and online child protection.
Also passed on Nov. 19 was a separate piece of legislation: the "Digital Theft Deterrence and Copyright Damages Improvement Act of 1999," HR. 3456. The bill, which, at press time, the president was expected to sign, amends section 504(c) of title 17 to increase the minimum statutory damages from $500 to $750, increase the maximum from $20,000 to $30,000, and increase the maximum for willful infringement from $100,000 to $150,000. It also directs the Sentencing Commission to adjust the sentencing guidelines for criminal copyright infringement to ensure that criminal penalties are sufficiently stringent and reflect the retail value of the works that were infringed.
Ms. Sievers is a writer-editor in the Copyright Office.