Date: Fri, 29 Jun 2001 00:00:23 -0700
From: Dan the Man
Subject: This is interesting...
I came across an interesting little blurb on Slashdot today. Follow
the link below to a sort of executive summary of the salient issues.
There is a link there to the original CNet article.
I have mixed feelings about this. I support the empowerment of
content creators over their work, but in this case the issue seems to be
more about who holds the copyright. This whole RIAA/Napster copyright
thing just makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up and gets me
hopping mad. There are two reasons for that, one from a technical
perspective and one from a personal perspective.
My technical perspective on the issue goes back to the Betamax court
ruling regarding the rights of viewers, or more generally consumers, to
have control over where and when they wanted to view television
programs. The court basically ruled that copyright holders were not
allowed to excercise draconian control over copyrighted material.
Today's digital technology, however, has provided a vehicle for
corporate copyright holders to regain that control independant of the
legal system. Digital technology allows copyright control to be added
to the media itself, making the legal rights of the consumer a moot
When compact discs came out, there wasn't a need to embed copyright
control mechanisms on the media. There was no way the average consumer
could afford the technology needed to copy the copyrighted work in its'
digital form. As computers became more powerful however, things
changed. The recent to-do over MP3 file sharing is evidence of that.
Now in the realm of digital video, corporate copyright holders are
tipping the scales in the other direction. The digital videotapes used
by modern video cameras all contain copyright protection. It is
impossible to copy a digital videotape which is marked as copyrighted.
Regional encoding on DVDs prevents the viewing of a DVD in a player
which does not have the correct region encoding in it, so that corporate
moguls can manipulate international markets for maximum profit. The
failed Divx format digital video disc went a step further by only
allowing a single viewing. Additional viewings of the material on the
disc, which had been purchased by the consumer, could only be achieved
by obtaining for a fee an authorization code which of course could only
be used once.
So what do we have? TV broadcasters freak out when analog recording
comes out. They try to assert their control through legal means to
protect their advertising revenue, and they fail. Along comes digital
media, and both the recording industry and the movie industry are
threatened again, this time to a much broader extent. Because of the
lesser technological demands of audio as opposed to video, the recording
industry gets to be the canary in the coal mine, and the canary dies.
With the MP3 file format, Napster, and the internet, they completely
loose control. The court system sides with the corporations, and
effectively shuts Napster down. This doesn't stop the flow of
copyrighted digital audio over the internet, but it reduces it
The video industry has already learned from their mistakes. They
lost the Betamax court case, and they take a different route. When
digital video technology comes about they manipulate the technology in
their favor. They put encryption onto all DVD discs so that the content
cannot be extracted in its' original, digital form. The encryption
turns out to be weak, however, and is soon broken. They respond with
lawsuits. In the current wake of the RIAA's Napster fiasco, the court
system looks like they are siding with the MPAA.
The ramifications of this are huge. With Betamax, copyright holders
failed to maintain legal control based on a policy of "because we say
so." When digital media comes about, they don't want to make the same
mistake again so they put copyright control on the media. The
technology fails to protect the content, and they sue. This time, they
win. The court says it is illegal to copy because it is encrypted.
Even though the encryption is easily broken. The actual technology
becomes irrelevant, and legally the material is protected because the
MPAA says it is. This is basically a reversal of the Betamax ruling.
Am I the only American paying any attention to this stuff? VHS tapes
will be obsolete in a few years, and you can bet that the replacement
will contain copyright control. With digital television just over the
horizon, the direction this is all going is obvious. The Betamax ruling
is going to be officially overturned, using the DVD case as a
precedent. If you record a television program on your fancy new digital
video machine that someone somewhere is probably developing as I write
this, it will only let you view it once. You can probably view it again
if you want, but you will need to pay for it. And the machine will
probably force you to watch the commercials. It won't be long before
the same thing happens to audio.
Wait, you say, they tried that with Divx and failed. The consumer
didn't buy the Divx discs because they wanted the control they were used
to with VHS tapes. That's true, but the Divx format only failed because
the consumer had a choice. Once VHS is obsolete, then the movie
industry can safely discontinue regular DVDs and go to Divx-style
distribution without fear that consumers will just revert to using VHS
You don't believe me? Fine. I will admit that I am taking a
worst-case viewpoint. It is always possible that the copyright holding
corporations will develop a benevolent streak and sacrifice profits for
the greater good of society.
I mentioned earlier that I have personal reasons for disliking all of
this as well. I have enjoyed the past few years immensely. Digital
audio distribution has allowed me to listen to any song I wanted,
anywhere, at any time. That is an easy thing to get used to. It is
clearly what consumers want. If left unimpeeded, technology would allow
the same thing with video as well. There are even deeper issues at
stake here than copyright control, and they are all inexorably
intertwined. Is it possible for a corporation to restrain technological
advancement in order to protect their revenue stream? What is the
purpose of the court system? To protect corporations or to protect
individuals? Is society better off because of strong copyright
protection? The conservative camp maintains that a prosperous economy
is a direct result of strong copyrights. Is it better to legally
empower corporations to make all the money they want to at the expense
of consumers, or should we let people more or less do what they want to,
and expect corporations to make a profit through creativity and
innovation of their own?
These arguments are only a stones throw away from the software
industry. Corporations are quietly converting the internet into a
vehicle for profit. The fact that the much-discussed open source
software movement exists at all is a fluke. The internet is the
environment in which open source software thrives, and the only reason
the internet is built on non-proprietary protocols is because big
corporations didn't realize that it had any value. The internet was
developed by the government and by universities, and neither one of them
had an interest in protecting their bottom line. The government had all
the money it wanted, and the universities didn't have any, so money
wasn't an issue. Now things are changing. Even though the foundation
of the internet is built on non-copyrighted technology that anyone who
wants to can read about and learn to underatand, there are subtle
undercurrents that things are changing. More and more proprietary
applications are being developed which use protocols that are protected
by big corporations. Slowly, the internet is being absorbed by
profit-based businesses. Unless everyone stands up for what We the
People want and need, the internet will eventually cease to exist in an
open form. So will movies. And record albums. And books. And
newspapers and magazines and radio and television.
Perhaps I am paranoid. I hope I am paranoid. I hope I am getting
all worked up about a future that will never come to pass. With digital
tachnology we stand at the same crossroads that atomic technology stood
at in the 1950s. On the one side, there were cars that would run
forever with no gas and electricity too cheap to meter. On the othe
side was massive global annihilation. Digital technology is literally
the intellectual equivalent. On one side, digital technology allows
anyone anywhere to share anything with anyone else at any time. On the
other hand, if all content becomes digital, and all digital content
becomes controlled, then digital technology prevents anyone from sharing
anything with anyone else. Ever.