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Dave Wilson

Anti-Piracy Laws Rob Consumers of Rights

February 22, 2001|Dave Wilson | Dave Wilson is The Times' personal technology columnist

Part of the Napster story is indeed about keeping digitized material--in this case, music--from being stolen. But it's also about a well-funded campaign by big business to maximize profits by curtailing consumer rights.

Corporations want to earn as much as they can from their intellectual property by turning all our entertainment--print, music, video--into pay-per-view. Making a buck is the American way of life, but some bad laws, such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act rammed through Congress, threaten other fundamental American rights--such as the free exchange of ideas.

This is a disaster waiting to happen. In its attempt to eradicate piracy, the government is making it impossible for consumers to engage in lawful behavior. It's like arguing that automobiles should be banned because bank robbers use them for getaways.

The concept in danger here is called "fair use," and it's intended to balance the rights of those who hold a copyright on specific works against the rights of everybody else to enjoy and share those works.

To understand how this applies to today's changing technology, look no further than a little bit of software called Total Recorder. It records sounds being played on any computer it's installed on, copying them onto the hard drive in digital form. Total Recorder is available for about $12 from a Canadian developer called High Criteria at http://www.highcriteria.com.

Total Recorder has a variety of uses. For instance, maybe you like listening to National Public Radio broadcasts, but, because they're transmitted live, you often miss them. Fortunately, NPR posts many of its shows on its Web site, http://www.npr.org. You can listen to those shows on your computer if you have an Internet connection and a program called RealAudio, the standard for what's called streaming media.

Streaming media was created to enable people to hear or watch an Internet audio or video file almost instantly by interpreting digital information on the fly into sounds and images.

To encourage content providers to stream their wares, designers for RealAudio, and similar tools such as Windows Media Player, built systems that prevent people from making a copy. It's a kind of electronic switch; if it's on, nobody is supposed to be able to duplicate those bits onto their hard drive.

Content providers generally set that switch to "Don't Copy." They want to maintain total control of their work so that consumers can't, say, decide on their own what the most important parts of a broadcast are and throw out the rest.

The problem is that this prevents consumers from doing really useful--and legal--things. For instance, to continue with our NPR example, if you could capture that NPR feed on your computer, you could record it on a cassette tape or burn it onto a CD and listen to it in your car on the way to work. Remember that as long as you're recording this for yourself, it's perfectly legal under the copyright law's fair use exception.

This is, of course, exactly what Total Recorder enables you to do. In fact, you can program it to wake up at a specific time and record a specific audio broadcast, just like a VCR.

The RealAudio folks didn't give me a comment on High Criteria's product. They did point out that they got a court order against a similar program, Streambox Ripper, which could copy video feeds. The Ripper is no longer for sale.

The court order was based on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a one-sided law passed in 1998 that essentially criminalizes making or distributing anything designed to thwart anti-copying technology. The act addresses the problem of piracy by giving all power to copyright holders, exactly the situation that the fair use concept was designed to thwart.

Joe Goldberg, director of sales and marketing for High Criteria, which is based in Toronto, said he's not worried because significant differences exist between the Ripper case and the Total Recorder product. "The Ripper's sole purpose was to rip Real content. We have a general-purpose product, and we have a very wide range of people who use it for legitimate and legal purposes," he said.

Gordon Bennett, the company's marketing manager, said High Criteria wasn't looking to follow in Napster's footsteps. "We're not political activists. We don't crack any code or reverse-engineer anything or bypass any control. We just want to do business. And we do not believe we violate the DMCA."

Let's hope not. Because in a very few years, we're going to get our newspapers and music and television and movies in digital format. Imagine not being able to clip out a funny Marmaduke cartoon from your digital newspaper and tape it to the refrigerator.

Most of the solutions being bandied about to resolve the Napster issue would sacrifice fair use and privacy on the altar of intellectual property protection. Think about whether that's a price you're willing to pay.

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