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 point.

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 drastically.

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 tapes.

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.

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