Copyright Office Criticized for Browser Bungle

The U.S. Copyright Office is facing harsh criticism after proposing a rule for pre-registration of copyrights over the Internet that would require Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser to guarantee a successful application. The move leaves a significant swath of Web users excluded and triggered objections from a number of technology experts, including the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, often considered the father of the Internet.

In an open letter to the U.S. Copyright Office, which asked for comment on whether the Explorer-only support for copyright pre-registration would be a problem, Berners-Lee complained that the rule set to take effect in October goes against not only the spirit of the Internet as an open, equally accessible form of communication, but also against U.S. government policy.

Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), told TechNewsWorld that government directives prescribe the adoption of open standards by government offices and agencies. He suggested the problem extends beyond the Copyright Office to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which oversees government contracts for technology and services.

“The key is that they should write to the standard,” Schwartz said. “That’s what the government policy should be, and that’s what it is, actually.”

Standard or Stuck

Although Microsoft dominates 90 to 95 percent of the browser market with Internet Explorer, there have been and continue to be a large number of Internet users who utilize several alternatives, including Apple’s Safari, AOL’s Netscape, open source options Opera and Firefox, and dozens more.

These browsers are often packaged or compatible with other non-Windows operating systems. They are also an increasing choice for Web users wary of security holes in Explorer, which is tightly integrated to the Windows OS.

Richard Stiennon, vice president of threat research for anti-spyware maker Webroot, told TechNewsWorld that companies and government agencies should be wary of developing software that supports a single vendor’s solutions instead of standards.

“The motive behind limiting what browser you develop for is laziness,” he said. “If you develop Web applications, you must develop to the W3C standards. You do not use Microsoft’s proprietary capabilities because you’ll get caught in it later.”

You’ve Got No Access

Stiennon observed that the Copyright Office would be excluding large numbers of users of all kinds by supporting only Explorer for registration of copyrights, which holds some irony, since the intent of copyright law is to encourage, not limit, innovation.

“Is the Copyright Office not going to accept AOL users?” Stiennon asked.

Part of the exclusionary approach reportedly arose from government vendor Siebel Systems’ inability to guarantee support for other browsers, something Stiennon said indicated a lack of investment in supporting multiple browsers as a result of the most recent economic downturn.

“But it’s a dynamic space,” he said. “It’s not going to consolidate to Microsoft completely, ever. Publishers don’t get to choose what browsers users are using.”

No Bias Intended

In response to a request for comment, the U.S. Copyright Office said in a statement that the Siebel software being used for pre-registration of copyrights — required under new anti-piracy legislation — might support other browsers, but had not been tested for them.

While the Office indicated support for other browsers will come in “an upcoming release,” it also suggested it may use non-electronic pre-registration options such as a paper-based fee and application processing in order to provide non-Explorer alternatives.

In terms of charges that the proposal is vendor-biased, the Office simply said there was no intent to endorse a particular vendor.

“The Office’s goal is to make the system available to everyone, and therefore to enable frequently used browsers,” said the statement sent to TechNewsWorld.

Standard, Standard, Standard

CDT’s Schwartz said use and promotion of standards is compulsory for government contracts just as cost estimates, business plans and acknowledgement of privacy and other issues are required as well.

“Part of [government contracts] is open standards, but they’re obviously not looking at it close enough,” he said. “If it’s not standards-compliant, that’s a problem, because the government shouldn’t be favoring one vendor over another,” he added, noting that Microsoft itself had pledged support for open standards recently.

“Also, it’s about promotion of standards,” Schwartz continued. “Then, the companies not making their browser to the standard are the problem. That’s the way it should be.”

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