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A Mickey Mouse Bill
David Banisar, 2002-04-01

The Hollings copyright bill would shoehorn absurd copy-blocking technology into everything from your Palm Pilot to your digital camera. Is this progress?

In the name of protecting copyrights, a new bill introduced in the U.S. Senate threatens to grind to a halt all advancements in electronics, computing and networking, decimating the consumer's ability to choose how they wish to listen, watch, and read. The motion picture industry is back on the Hill.

Earlier this month, Senator Fritz Hollings (D-SC) and five other Senators introduced S. 2048, the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (CBDTPA), on behalf of the movie industry. The bill proposes to ban the importation, sale or transport of any "digital media device" unless it has a built-in security standard to protect the copyright of material. It will also be illegal to remove or alter the "security" technology in the devices or distribute copyrighted material with anything besides the compliant measures installed. And it requires "interactive computer services" to ensure that anything that they send or store retain the security controls.

"Digital media devices" is vaguely defined as any hardware or software that "reproduces copyrighted works in digital form" or "converts copyrighted works in a digital form into a form whereby the images and sounds are visible or audible" or "retrieves or accesses copyrighted works in digital form." It's hard to imagine anything that would not be covered, including Palm Pilots, digital cameras, MP3 players, TVs and most important, any and every PC made today.

Under the bill, supported primarily by Fox and Disney, industry must get together and develop the standards within a year for protecting the security of copyrighted materials. Consumer groups are supposed to be involved, but it's not clear who gets to choose the makeup of the committee, or if professional societies and civil liberties groups -- who would just cause trouble -- are going to be allowed to join.

Private Meetings
To make sure that the standard-makers will not be distracted by public input, the bill exempts any committees, conference, boards or task forces that it creates from open government rules -- so they can act in secret to their heart's content, away from the prying eyes of the people who might actually want to buy the devices some day.

Once the standard is set, it will then become mandatory by law.

How they are supposed to succeed is another matter. The industry has already been working under the Copy Protection Technology Working Group and the Moving Pictures Experts Group for years without coming up with a standard. And the great electronic trash heap is piled with bad standards designed to protect copyright holders' interests over those of consumers. How many years has work gone on SDMI? And how about DIVX, the bad pay per view standard pushed by Circuit City (not the video compression system).

Just to make sure, the bill requires that if the industry does not come to an agreement in a year, the FCC can step in and create its own standard. Sadly, the FCC is not exactly known as a champion of consumer rights. The current chairman's main qualifications are that he is the son of the Secretary of State and strongly anti-consumer. The commission has completely ignored consumer interests on broadband access and allowed the competition be driven out of business.

Technology Blame Game
The CBDTPA is part of a long effort to strip consumers of their rights by designing the technology to only show content in the way the movie and music industry wants us to see it.

In 1983 Disney and Universal Studios sued Sony to stop the Betamax VCR that allowed people to record shows for later viewing, so that Universal could sell a laser disk system. The Supreme Court thwarted that effort, fortunately, and ruled that equipment manufacturers should not be held liable for the activities of their users when a significant number of the uses of the devices would not infringe copyrights.

The content industry spends its time trying to stop innovators such as Rio, ReplayTV, MP3.com, Napster, etc. Now they want to do it to computers. They spend a good amount of time trying to limit the development of every new technology because they are always behind the curve on coming out with useful ways to use it.

It's also easier to blame the technology than accept responsibility for their own bad business judgments. Look at HDTV. It took the industry a decade to develop a standard because of fights over whose standard was going to prevail. Last month, EMI had to pay off $28 million to Mariah Carey to get out of her $100 million contract after her latest album flopped. Then they blame their massive layoffs on net piracy. Yeah, there was big time pirating of her songs going on.

Ma Mickey
What is all this likely to mean to consumers? A lot less functionality, with content locked down to single device. Want to listen to that song on your MP3 player? Fat chance. Play that movie on a different machine when yours dies? Forget about it. And don't even think about writing software that might show video, play music or display images without ensuring that it is pre-approved by Hollywood. They will be happy to sic the copyright police on you.

Under this legislation, many of the innovative devices we use every day like VCRs and MP3 players would never have been permitted to come to market, without first being pre-approved by the copyright police. It will be like the old days when you could not hook up anything to your phone line unless Ma Bell approved. Except this time it's Ma Mickey.

It's also likely that they will try and use the standard to ban retention of any home copies, automatically refusing to play recorded items after some period of time. (The bill claims that it protects consumer rights -- but the FCC will do its usual hand wringing and cave into industry demands.) It seems like the studios' dream device is a box, with no remote, that plays whatever they want it to play and hooks directly into your eyes to prevent copying and into your bank account to debit on demand.

For once the IT industry is unified in opposing a bill on copyright -- hoping that a strong defeat of this will send a message that Hollywood doesn't get everything it wants. Let's hope they are right. It's a good time to bury this Mickey Mouse legislation.



David Banisar is deputy director of Privacy International.
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