WASHINGTON -- The Commerce Department is suggesting that the nation's copyright laws be strengthened to protect "content" on the information highway -- including a recommendation that the theft of more than $5,000 of copyright material on-line be made a criminal offense.
In a 250-page report released yesterday, the Commerce Department also said Congress should make it illegal for people to produce or use any technology whose main purpose is to defeat copy protection or use restrictions for on-line work.
Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown said changes to the existing copyright law that specifically address how to protect intellectual property in electronic form -- such as on-line software or news articles -- would provide a significant boost to the commercialization of the growing information highway.
"The way you expand use is to make sure you have content," Mr. Brown said at a news conference yesterday. "And the way you make sure you have content is to provide protection for the works."
Without changes that guarantee copyright holders can control who uses their material on-line, and how, the development of the "cyberspace marketplace" will be stymied and computer networks will be just communications devices, he said.
The Commerce Department has forwarded its recommendations in the form of proposed legislation to Capitol Hill. The goal is to get congressional hearings soon and action by the end of 1996, said Bruce A. Lehman, commissioner of patents and trademarks and chair of the group that wrote the report.
The report calls mostly for strengthening copyright protections. But it also concludes that libraries and schools should get special treatment for the use of on-line information, a bow to concerns the information highway would prove too expensive for such institutions.
The software industry hailed the report as a significant step toward addressing its concerns over how to protect programs and on-line information from unauthorized use.
"On a scale of one to 10, this is a 10," said Ken Wasch, executive director of the Software Publishers Association. "This report gives a clear definition of the protection of [electronic] transmissions and making it illegal to interfere with copyright management systems."
The Clinton administration has spent more than a year studying some of the stickier problems of adapting a print-based copyright law to the electronic age.
The ability of computers to make near-instant, perfect copies of a book or video clip, combined with the ability of computer networks to make the copies available immediately to users around the world, has created consternation among major copyright holders. They worry that their work will be widely distributed, but that they won't get paid.
Indeed, software companies have long been troubled by "pirate" bulletin boards, whose owners put illicit copies of popular software on-line and give it away or sell it to users. The publisher of the software doesn't get any of the money and loses a potential sale.
Computer users, too, have historically fought technologies to prevent illegal copying of software; many companies used such techniques in the mid-1980s, but dropped them under pressure from consumers.