Digital content: The entertainment industry's efforts to prevent copying and sharing music and video online has some worried about infringement of consumers' rights.

September 12, 2002|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

Planning to rip and burn a few tunes from Britney Spears' new CD to back up your favorite tracks?

Hoping to hunt up a recording of that hot polka you heard years ago through the KaZaA network?

Thinking digital television will broadcast episodes of ER that you'll be able to share with friends over the Internet?

Think again.

The entertainment industry is waging an unprecedented legal, political and technical campaign to lock up its music, movies and software in the digital realm.

Congress is already pondering industry legislation that would allow copyright holders to launch computer attacks on peer-to-peer file-sharing networks. Record companies are slipping copy-protected CDs onto retailers' shelves. The music industry is suing Internet service providers, trying to block access to foreign Web sites that have pirated music.

Music and movie fans, scholars and civil libertarians call it a war over intellectual property, an all-out assault on the right of consumers to make personal copies of digital media.

"It's scary," says Larry Feldman, a musician and lawyer who works on the Boycott-RIAA.com Web site, which tracks legal and political campaigns by the Recording Industry Association of America. "The industry is getting increasingly more intrusive with legislation ... and they don't care about privacy or the constitutional implications."

Consider a few of the proposals:

South Carolina Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, a Democrat, has offered a bill that would require manufacturers of PCs, TV recorders and MP3 players to build copy protection technology into their devices.

A bill from Rep. Howard L. Berman, a California Democrat, would allow copyright holders such as movie studios and music labels to launch computer attacks against file-sharing networks such as Gnutella, KaZaA and Morpheus. The bill would protect studios from state or federal action if they disable or block a peer-to-peer network, though such action is a violation of federal computer security law.

The Federal Communications Commission has proposed a rule requiring digital TVs to recognize a "flag" in digital broadcasts that would help prevent copies of programs from being distributed over the Internet. Television and motion picture officials say they won't broadcast movies and other programs if there's no way to prevent such copying.

"They're all pieces of a puzzle and each is very important," says Mitch Glazier, RIAA senior vice president for government relations.

Use vs. piracy

While it's legal to make a copy of a song for personal use, recording executives have long been enraged by the millions of pirated tunes exchanged online illegally every day without compensation to studios, artists or composers. They list the file-trading as the major reason for a downturn in record sales.

"There's a big difference between fair use and infringement of copyright," Glazier said.

Movie studios, meanwhile are upset by the posting of digital versions of entire films such as Spiderman and Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones, even while they were still playing in theaters.

Fritz Attaway, executive vice president of the Motion Picture Association of America, draws a legal distinction between the two types of media. While unprotected music CDs may be copied for personal use, he said, there is no established right to copy a DVD movie.

In fact, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA) makes it illegal to circumvent the encryption built into all DVDs. The act - the result of years of industry lobbying - is now the industry's biggest club, making it a federal crime to circumvent copy protection in any digital medium - even if the user has a right to make a personal copy of the material under existing copyright law.

In addition, it forbids public discussion or publication of information that could be used to defeat copyright protection - a provision civil liberties advocates say is a violation of First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court has not yet resolved either conflict.

Digital shift

Until the late 1990s, studios and record producers concentrated anti-piracy efforts on organized rings that sold bootleg disks and tapes. So why the sudden interest in average users?

Josh Bernoff, a principal analyst with Forrester Research, said it's the result of the technological leap from older, analog media (vinyl albums, audio cassettes, and video tapes) to digital media such as CDs and DVDs.

"Analog technology was not that easy to pirate," he said. "You needed expensive and cumbersome machines to make copies. You couldn't crank out, say, 100 cassettes from a record in your home. As a result, people [in the industry] didn't feel any need to enforce their copyright."

Today's software makes it easy for listeners to "rip" a track from a music CD and store it on a computer as a digital MP3 file. Thanks to the Internet, it's simple to send that song to one friend, or to 1,000 "friends" over a peer-to-peer network that allows millions of online users to share their hard drives' content.

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