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Congressman Vows to Fight for Fair Use

A U.S. lawmaker today warned of attempts to roll back a provision in copyright law that has become a cornerstone of posting and sharing content on the Internet, pledging to fight to preserve the doctrine of fair use in the face of an array of challenges.

"For over a decade, fair use has been under attack, specifically by large media companies," Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Penn) said today in a keynote address at an event hosted by the digital rights group Public Knowledge, and co-sponsored by Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), an ardent proponent of progressive Internet copyright policies.

Fair use, the provision in copyright law that allows the unauthorized reproduction of snippets of copyrighted material, has a broad impact on the way people find and retrieve content on the Web.

Search results, for instance, typically display an excerpt of the material on the destination page alongside the link. Similarly, the emergent genre of music and video mashups, which sample and repurpose other artists' work in a new format, finds its legal underpinning in the doctrine of fair use.

"Think about what the Web would be like," Doyle said, without the snippets of sites' content next to the links on search results pages. "You wouldn't know what to click on."

But fair use has emerged as a flash point for some news and entertainment companies that have seen the value bleed out of their content on the Web.

There is perhaps no more vocal a spokesperson in the campaign to tighten up fair use than Rupert Murdoch, the CEO of News Corp., who on several occasions last year hinted at his intentions to challenge the doctrine in court. But he wasn't alone. Other companies, particularly newspaper publishers, have expressed similar displeasure at the relationship that sees search engines like Google display snippets of their content alongside dozens of other links without providing any monetary compensation.

Google's response has been simply, and consistently, that it daily sends millions of visitors to publishers' sites, each representing a revenue opportunity. At the same time, publishers are free to program their sites to appear invisible to its Web spiders.

Doyle this morning pointed out that numerous publishers in Murdoch's own company rely on fair use to repurpose content, and that News Corp. has used the doctrine in its defense against infringement litigation.

In copyright circles, fair use can be a slippery term, with debates turning on where snippets end and infringement begins, or what constitutes legitimate recontextualization. For Doyle, though, fair use is a necessary means to preserving the balance of protecting artists' and content producers' rights without snuffing out the novel forms of work that spring from the creative repurposing of the work of others.

"Artists should be compensated for their work, but the compensation should be in line with their contribution," he said.

At the same time, fair use and other issues of digital copyright, while central to the mission of Web firms like Google, skirt the mainstream for many members lawmakers.

"Most members of Congress don't think about fair use," Doyle said. "When you say 'fair use' to my 435 colleagues in the House, I would venture to say better than half of them couldn't tell you what fair use is."

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of the internet.com network.