The rights of digital management

Congress extended copyright terms to 70 years beyond the life of the author or 95 years after publication; copyrights owned by corporations last for 125 years. Clearly, copyrights have gotten out of hand.

As personal computers become ever more powerful with hundreds of gigabytes of storage and, increasingly, are linked to the Internet by high-speed services, we are going to hear a great deal more about digital rights management (DRM for short). Media providers have long been nervous about Internet-based file-sharing services such as Napster and KaZaa. Litigation is already in the works and legislation is on the timetable of the U.S. Congress. Hardware and software manufacturers are targets for new and restrictive laws. But the consumer may be the victim.

In fact, legislation is already on the books as the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998. The DMCA made it illegal not only to copy a work protected by copyright but it also made it a crime to unscramble an encrypted work without the permission of the owner. And, by extension, the manufacture of hardware or software to crack encrypted and copyrighted works is also illegal. Downloading text or photos from the Internet and emailing them to a couple of dozen colleagues is probably illegal under the terms of the DMCA.

As you are probably aware, many audio compact discs have copy protection built into the recorded tracks as do many DVD movies. The big companies that produce CDs and DVDs would like to go even further and have legislation enacted that would require manufacturers of CD players, DVD players and personal computers to install chips that would prevent unauthorized copying. In fact, Microsoft has long had a development program, code-named "Palladium," to build copy protection into Microsoft products. Microsoft claims that this project is intended to provide added security for users of its operating systems and application software. We shall see about that.

On the other side of this copyright battle are the increasingly vocal cyber-activists who are quick to claim that the new and proposed rules will stifle creativity at a time when the technology of computers and communications is expanding at breakneck speed. Such activists as Lawrence Lessig of Stanford University Law School declare that most cultural developments make direct or indirect use of existing work. ". . . the law has become the willing tool of those who would protect what they have against the innovation the Net could promise," says Lessig in his recent book, The Future of Ideas: the Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. (Random House, NY; 2001). Lessig is definitely worth listening to.

Lessig has proposed a return to the old system of registering copyrights that would protect creative works for five years with the possibility of further renewals at five-year intervals. This is similar to the copyright law of 1790 that gave the owner of a work a copyright for 14 years with a possible extension of another 14 years. Just recently, however, Congress extended the copyright terms to 70 years beyond the life of the author or 95 years after publication; copyrights owned by corporations last for 125 years. Clearly, copyrights have gotten out of hand.

There are some people who would go further than Lessig. For example, Jessica Litman of the Law School of Wayne State University argues in her book, Digital Copyright, (Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2001) that attempts to regulate copying should be abandoned but copyright holders should have the exclusive rights of commercial exploitation of their works. Not quite what the authors of the DMCA had in mind.

In my view, it's time to let the market sort out the copyright question and not burden manufacturers of hardware, software developers, and content providers with further government regulation. Let's develop ways of meeting market needs with a wider range of suppliers and a variety of payment options. Let's not stifle creativity of content and delivery.

Jeffrey Bairstow
Online Editor
jbairstow@pennwell.com

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