The RIAA, mouthpiece of the recording industry, has received a lot of attention lately for their lawsuits against several thousand people they say have been breaking copyright law by providing music files for download. But Jeff Howe, a contributing editor at Wired Magazine, points out that it’s not the RIAA’s lawyers that we need to be afraid of. It’s the law that gives them the power to bring the legal action in the first place.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) passed in 1998, drastically changes the rights you have (or thought you have) to use the media – music, video, even digital print files – you’ve purchased. And there’s an aspect of this issue that teachers especially need to be aware of. The fair use provision of the copyright law, which is much broader for educators than for people working outside the classroom, is severely limited by the DMCA.

Under fair use, a music teacher could use a short clip from a CD she owns to illustrate a point she’s making in her lesson. If the audio comes from one of the growing number of recordings that is digitally protected, however, the DMCA says that she may not use any technology that will circumvent that protection to get at her fair use rights. The same is true of DVDs, television broadcasts, even digitally distributed magazines and books.

Beyond the classroom, the restrictions placed on fair use by the DMCA will increasingly affect scholarship and "the fluid exchange of ideas" that is really the cornerstone of an educated society, unless the law is changed. There are a couple of bills currently stirring around Congress to amend the DMCA but it’s not likely any of them will pass. The media companies and their front organizations like the RIAA have a lot of money to spread around and in government, money speaks louder than legal rights.