The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a Federal law established in 1998. It criminalized the development or use of software that makes it possible for people to access materials that are copyright protected, like music files, DVDs, or software programs. It also makes it criminal to disseminate copyright protected materials.
The impetus behind the DMCA is that computer piracy was quickly decreasing profits for those who disseminated information on the Internet or who sold software programs. Making pirated copies of materials like a word processing program, or duplicates of music were becoming an increasing headache for companies using the Internet or making profits therefrom.
The DMCA sought to address this by setting forth specific rules regarding the criminal and civil prosecution of those violating copyrights. In some cases violation would include plagiarism, not citing particular sources appropriately, or deliberate theft. It also includes programming code that can provide access to material that is encoded.
Programs like Napster for example are a direct violation of the DMCA because they allowed for people to download music files without paying the musicians and record companies. This program was able to get around encoding data, so that people could illegally download material, as defined by the DMCA.
Opponents to the shutdown of Napster argued that the DMCA overstepped itself because people were sharing filings, not engaging in seeking profit for their use. However, even this sharing theoretically violated the DMCA and thus Napster was ordered to shut down.
In 2006, backed by the recording and film industry, a proposed revamping of the DMCA would further tighten restrictions on items like file sharing. Not everyone supports this revisal of the original DMCA. For example one of the proposed targets of the DMCA is YouTube, where people often share copyrighted material.
Evoking some controversy, one major recording label, Warner, is giving the right to anyone to use their recordings to make short movies or videos. Further acts by other record companies might help end the looming controversy over YouTube's copyright infringements and make it easier for people to share and experiment with film and music files.
There are many organizations now opposed to further tightening of the DMCA, but their opposition may mean little since these organizations lack the lobbying power of some of the software, recording and film industry giants.