Johnny Cash Backs Copyright Protection On 'Net

Tells House subcommittee his music is free for downloading to millions and he's not happy about it.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Country legend Johnny Cash has proven once again that he is a man who keeps pace with the times.

The 65-year-old songwriting legend, who last year recorded ace covers of songs by Beck and Soundgarden, went to Congress on Wednesday to voice his support for treaties that would ensure copyright protection on the Internet.

"Our founding fathers included copyright in the Constitution for good

reason," said the Grammy-winning Cash, speaking in his characteristic deep voice, before the House Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property. "It says our laws respect what we create with our heads as much as what we build with our hands. That's true in real life, and it ought to be true in cyberspace, too."

As the writer of more than 400 songs, Cash certainly has a stake in

copyright protection. With his wife June Carter, also a songwriter,

sitting behind him, the black-clad Cash told the House subcommittee that

earlier this week he found a near-CD quality version of his hit "Ring of

Fire" in its entirety on a web site hosted in Slovenia.

"Maybe I should be flattered that someone in Slovenia likes my song," Cash

said, "but when he or she makes it available to millions of people, this

hardly seems fair."

The treaties whose ratification Cash supports were adopted last December by

World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva, Switzerland. The measures, which update world copyright law for the first time in 25 years, commit signing nations to recognizing in their own laws that copyright extends to the Internet and other new digital media.

Supporters, such as Hilary Rosen, CEO for the Recording Industry

Association of America (RIAA) say the treaties effectively require other

countries to provide copyright protection consistent with current U.S. law.

Rosen told the subcommittee that protection is especially important in

light of the fact that last year more American music was sold overseas than

domestically, and that continued growth relies on adequate copyright

safeguarding.

"While this task has traditionally been fraught with difficulty -- witness

the well-known piracy problems in China or Mexico -- it becomes increasingly

more complex with developments in technology that permit the instantaneous

and global distribution of materials with the touch of a button," Rosen said.

"The U.S. has the most to gain and the most to lose," added Tim Sites, the

RIAA's senior vice president for communications. "We're the largest exporter of copyrighted materials in the world. We need to send a clear signal to other countries that intellectual property is important, it's valued and it's important to protect it."

House Resolution No. 2281, the Congressional action that would implement

the WIPO treaties, enjoys wide support. Critics, however, want it passed

only in conjunction with another measure, HR 2180, which would provide

explicit immunity from copyright infringement for companies such as

Internet service providers.

The fair use doctrine of the United States Copyright Act, which allows

copying and other uses of copyrighted material without permission in

certain circumstances, is held intact by the WIPO treaties.

Following Wednesday's hearing, the subcommittee will mark up the

ratification legislation and send it to the full House Committee on the

Judiciary. The WIPO measures won't come into force until legislatures in

30 of the more than 160 countries that adopted the treaties ratify them.

If passed, Web sites such as the one in Slovenia would be required to get

permission from Cash before posting "Ring of Fire" or any of his songs on

their pages.

"We ought to do what we can to keep copyright strong and make sure it keeps

pace with today's newest technology," Cash said. "What's right is right,

even in cyberspace." [Thurs., Sept. 18, 1997, 9 a.m. PST]