Stop Thief

Technology throws right to ideas into doubt

June 19, 2000|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

In Paraguay, Nintendo Corp. seizes 600,000 counterfeit semiconductor chips from a renegade game company. In Beijing, the Chinese government awards $147,000 to a factory worker who informs against a production line making pirated music CDs.

In Moscow, security forces monitor the Gorbushka market, a bucolic park where hundreds of black marketeers line up to trade pirated copies of Microsoft Windows for a handful of rubles.

And in California, a desperate recording industry is suing a tiny company whose software allows college students to trade music over the Internet.

The world war over intellectual property is heating up, as armies of lawyers around the globe debate one of the most vexing questions of the Digital Age: How can individuals and businesses protect their ideas and inventions?

"This is a whole new arena that didn't exist even three years ago," says Michael A. Epstein, a partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges in New York, which has one of the nation's largest intellectual-property law departments. "It's mind-boggling. The Internet has ratcheted up the issue because it's made copyright infringement a lot more rampant. Content can now spread all over the world in seconds."

At stake is the most important product of a new economy driven by information, software and silicon. At its most elementary level, intellectual property is any idea that has been protected by copyright, trademark or patent. It can be a song, a novel, a computer program, a computer chip, a better mousetrap, a new treatment for cancer or a performance of "Hamlet." The U.S. Patent Office has extended the notion of intellectual property even to methods of doing business - such as's one-click, online book checkout.

Inventors, artists and authors have battled over intellectual property since Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray filed competing patents for the telephone on the same day in 1876. But cheap computers and the explosive growth of the Internet have galvanized the debate because they make intellectual property so easy to copy.

Anyone with an Internet connection can sit at a computer, click the mouse a few times and download "free" copies of copyrighted music, software, Nintendo 64 games, Hollywood movies, books, video arcade hits and TV show episodes. Often, this is just as illegal as it is convenient.

Thousands of Web surfers using the Napster file-sharing program have built vast collections of compressed MP3 files that contain copyrighted music, despite repeated threats and some court victories by artists and their corporate muscle.

Another simple file-sharing program, iMesh, enables users to download full-length movies - even films that haven't been released on video.

Meanwhile, inexpensive compact disc drives make it a snap to make perfect digital copies of entire albums, or squeeze hundreds of compressed songs onto a CD.

The practitioners of this craft ply their trade without remorse. They argue that the public has paid inflated prices for inferior goods for far too long.long as I can remember. ... They are reaping what they have sown."

The corporate owners of copyrighted works - and many of the artists who created them - are striking back. But they face an almost impossible task - trying to halt the activities of millions of people around the world with threats of lawsuits or arrest. So, instead of targeting individuals, they're going after the distributors - a job that's only marginally easier.

In a recent speech in San Jose, Calif., Seagram's CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr., whose company owns the Universal entertainment conglomerate, called protection of intellectual property rights "the most critical challenge for this technological revolution."

He also suggested that the technology being used by members of the pirating public may be used against them.

"We have available to us growing arsenals of technological weapons that will be brought to bear on inappropriate access to material on the Internet," he declared. "Technology will offer the owners of property at least as much comfort as it may currently offer hackers and spies, pirates and pedophiles. ... We fully intend to exploit technology to protect property."

He also dismissed the argument of the Internet's egalitarian founders that information should be free, calling it "a disingenuous appeal to utopianism. ... Other than the gifts of God and nature, that which is free is free only because someone else has paid for it."

Others advocate a gentler approach. Marty Fries, a Laurel, Md., technology consultant and author of the new book "The MP3 and Internet Audio Handbook," said music companies in particular should find a way to make the Internet and even free music an ally - before it's too late.

"They need to muzzle their lawyers," Fries said. "It's a bad move to turn your fans into criminals. Encouraging it is the better way. Give the fans something for free, but encourage them to buy reasonably priced albums."

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